Changing Ages, Changing Bodies

The church’s call to support wellness as members age

One day Mr. Smith Came into the walk-in clinic at Church Health in Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Smith said he felt like he had lost his strength and he just did not “feel right.” His blood sugar and his A1C were high. (A1C is a test that measures a person’s average blood sugar over the last three months.) Dr. Morris diagnosed him with diabetes, and the Church Health medical team took care of him that day by giving him the medication he needed to help keep his blood sugar down.

When Mr. Smith came back a week later and I was able register for Church Health’s free diabetes class, I started providing health coaching services for him. In our first meeting we discussed his work and family. He is an older man who works in a warehouse and is the caregiver for his wife, who also has diabetes and is disabled. This causes him a lot of stress because she is sick often. We talked about healthy eating for diabetes and discussed a grocery list. 

In the months that followed, I continued meeting with Mr. Smith. During this time his health improved dramatically. He was able to lower his AIC and get his diabetes under control. Mr. Smith also took what we discussed in our health coaching sessions, as well as the diabetes classes, with him to his work place. He began advocating for himself within the workplace and in the community.

During our health coaching sessions, Mr. Smith and I discussed setting goals. He spent so much time caring for his wife that he neglected self-care. We discussed ways he could take a break and care for himself. One of the goals Mr. Smith developed was to be able to go to Bass Pro Shop by himself. After a number of months of, he was able to accomplish his goal.

Mr. Smith needed assistance managing his chronic disease. He slowly made changes and improved his health with the help of many other caring individuals. As we age, we need more help. Mr. Smith needed someone to check in on him every now and then and provide love and support. 

Motivated for Self-care

Our bodies change as we age. We may notice that we don’t move the way we used to. It is harder for us to maintain our weight, and we are more susceptible to injury and disease. We must be more aware of what we eat—and how much—and learn to exercise differently and more effectively.

According the National Council on Aging Healthy Aging Fact Sheet, “Older adults are disproportionally affected by chronic conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. Eighty percent have at least one chronic condition, and nearly 70% of Medicare beneficiaries have two or more.” This is something that the body of Christ should be aware of, since many of our members are affected by chronic conditions.

People are now living longer, and as we get older we have to manage our health. Taking care of our health is part of the journey we are on as humans created in the image of God. Our bodies are not perfect, but we must do what we can to take care of them. Many times, when a person visits the doctor, a doctor will give a patient a prescription for a chronic health condition and say to eat right and exercise but fail to explain why such medication or self-care is necessary. And the patient may have no idea why or how to exercise or eat right.

Being diagnosed with a chronic illness, like diabetes or high blood pressure, can be overwhelming. A new diagnosis and having to make changes can be overwhelming for many people. Individuals may feel like failures or refuse to recognize the illness. They may read that they need to learn how to cook healthier or they should follow a certain diet, but they fear that eating healthy is expensive, or they may not feel comfortable exercising at the gym in front of people. These barriers can be overcome with the support of others. This is where the church can be a voice of comfort and healing, offering to persons affected with chronic disease the assistance they need to get past barriers to improving health.

Many chronic conditions can be managed by patients working on improving their health in a variety of ways. With support, patients can take their medication, follow up with their providers, exercise, eat healthier food, and manage their stress. That is what Mr. Smith learned, and it helped him improve his overall health. He found he could take control of his health by learning about his diabetes and watching what he ate. He started to feel better and understand that he could play an important role in his own health. Just because a person has a chronic illness doesn’t mean life is over. You can still enjoy life and have fun.

Dr. David Jennings, a Church Health internist with an older-aged patient practice, told me of an inspiring change in one of his patient’s health when she was confronted with an age-related chronic disease. Just after her retirement from years of working as a nursing home aide, Mrs. Garcia developed arthritis in both of her knees as a result of longstanding obesity and a previous injury which limited her ability to walk without pain. She was encouraged by those in her congregation to see her doctor to find out what could be done to help her. Her joy after retirement was to help take care of her two granddaughters while her son and daughter-in-law were at work, so she was determined not to have knee surgery, which would take time away from loving those grandbabies. Dr. Jennings did X-rays, offered anti-inflammatory pain medication, and outlined other measures that could help Mrs. Garcia to function optimally with the arthritis, but only a few of the treatments were doctor-administered. The others required her to take an active part in working to improve her own health. Motivated by her love for family and desire not to have surgery, she did the following: met with a dietitian and developed a healthier diet plan which, while resulting in only 12 pounds of weight loss, was enough to reduce the pain in her knees; learned from a physical therapist how to strengthen and protect her joints; and began a low-impact aerobics and walking program for seniors offered through her church. While she may eventually require knee surgery, because she is an active participant in her own health, her life has been enriched and she’s been a blessing to her family and church community.

This is where the church can be a voice of comfort and healing, offering support and help persons affected with chronic disease the assistance they need to get past barriers to improving health.

Community of Support

As we get older, we can see aging as a gift. We learn from the past that these chronic conditions can be improved, and we have a part to play in helping take care of our health. We are not on our own as we take on this new challenge.

This causes us to ask how the church can provide support to members with the challenges of making healthy changes. The church as the community can help support God’s children and help them know that they are not alone in this process. It is always comforting to know others are going through the same thing you are. Here are a few ideas congregations can consider:

  • Offer Bible studies on faith and health.
  • Provide a safe place for a walking group.
  • Organize workout classes.
  • Organize an outdoor nature walk.
  • Provide healthy recipes in a newsletter or health bulletin board.
  • Ask people to bring healthy dishes to church meals.
  • Make salt-free seasoning available at church meals.
  • Offer fruits and nuts during the coffee hour.
  • Invite someone to offer free or low-cost cooking classes.
  • Host a weight loss support group with a prayer time.

Congregations can encourage older people to take small steps and make sure they have someone to be a companion as they take those steps. A church van could be used to help take people to doctor’s offices, and a buddy system could make sure no one goes to the doctor’s office alone. Some people struggle to remember to take their medication. Maybe they can take their medication when they do their daily devotional or prayer time. Someone could walk and pray at the same time or listen to a devotional while preparing a healthy meal. Each time we drink water can be a reminder to be thankful for the gift of baptism and how important the gift of water is in our lives.

Older adults have a strong faith. They are always learning and growing in their faith, and they can always learn more about their health. We as the body of Christ can help provide support in new ways to help them feel loved and not judged so that we can keep learning from them. We as the church can help the children of God realize they are not alone as they are living with this new challenge. God is with them, and God’s family is there to support them. We are always better when we work together. 

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