Older adults are techier than you think
The image of a bespectacled oldster huddled over a large print Bible in a dimly lit room might be an accurate portrayal of older adults from the past. It definitely not the picture we see today. Today’s older adults, ranging from ages 60 to 100-plus, are very different from generations past. After all, they created rock ‘n’ roll (Little Richard is 86), invented the Internet (Al Gore is 70) and still give interviews on the secrets to aging (Betty White is 96).
What is most important for churches to understand is this: The number of older adults is increasing rapidly. They are the fastest growing age group in the United States. It is anticipated to reach 56 million in 2020, 79 million in 2035 and 89 million by 2050. It is also well to remember that not all older adults are the same.
The three primary groups are:
- Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964 (ages 54–72)
- Vanguards: Born 1934 to 1945 (ages 73–84)
- GI Generation: Born 1910 to 1933 (ages 85 and older).
Boomers are still the largest generation, and 10,000 are retiring every day. And while the perception may be that all — or even most — boomers go to church, the Pew Forum reports only 38 percent worship weekly. Of the almost 48 million boomers who are not highly active in their churches, a large portion have no church affiliation at all.
Since 2007 with the arrival of the first iPhone, the United States has become a nation filled with screens. Smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and laptops give us an ability to connect with people at any time and from any place on the globe, as long as WiFi is available.
This ability to get instant information from anyplace and everyplace on the globe and sharing responses makes our era different. While past generations sent cards and letters in the mail, today’s post-65ers look at pictures of their grandkids on Facebook, use FaceTime to make video calls to their children and are benefitting from the exploding use of technology to improve lives. The greatest beneficiaries of self-driving cars, grocery store home delivery and advances in health care (new hips, knees, etc.) will be the aged of the future.
Who are ‘older adults’?
Boomers — Born 1946 to 1964 (ages 54-72): Boomers have always had an outsized impact on the American culture because of their sheer numbers. They experienced their youth boom from 1964 to 1971 and saw the rise of the counterculture movement, protests against the Viet Nam war, and the birth of the Jesus movement. With 10,000 retiring every day, they are fueling the growth of older adults.
Vanguards — Born 1934 to 1945 (ages 73-84): Born during the Depression and World War II, this group was the first to experience a youth culture in the 1950s and became the advocates of social change in the Civil Rights and women’s movements. This group includes Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard and The Supremes whose rock ‘n’ roll and soul music are the roots of all popular music. They also were the first group to see high numbers of divorces.
GI Generation — Born 1910 to 1933 (85 and older): These people are entering the most fragile state of older adulthood when they will need greater support and assistance from family and other support networks. The children of this generation (many who are Boomers) are at a crisis point as they try to navigate the long-term care and health needs of their parents.
Craig Kennet Miller, “Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life,” The Upper Room, pp. 11 and 60.
What fuels social media should not be a surprise. It is the desire for relationships — the same reason many people actively participate in a church. And older adults, as much as any other generation, want to know what is going on. According to a Pew research report about social media use, their favorite site is Facebook with 65 percent of those 60 to 64 and 41 percent of those 65 and over using it to connect with friends. YouTube has similar numbers with 68 percent and 40 percent respectively.
It is with these things in mind that churches can begin approaching how to communicate with people over 65. Building relationships is the central purpose for using digital media in a church. Here are five keys:
- Church website: Your website is the front porch of your church — for all generations. The way you present yourself online tells who is welcome in your church. If you only put up a series of announcements, you are telling people that the church is for insiders. To be invitational, focus on the upcoming worship service complete with topic and who is speaking, let people know the times and any other information that a newcomer would find helpful. Make certain photos of your congregation portray all the generations who are active.
- Streaming or recording worship services: Using a video camera or a digital recorder makes it quite inexpensive to record worship services and put them online. This makes your worship experience available to those who are not able to get to church. This can be a great project for youth and young adults.
- Online classes: Churches are finding success in offering online Bible study and prayer groups. For those who are unable to drive or find it hard to locate parking during the week, online classes using a service like Zoom are a great way to connect with older adults.
- Social media days: Provide an intergenerational experience and invite older adults to learn from youth about how to use their smartphones, how to setup a Facebook account and how to use the church website. Many older adults, especially in the upper ranges, will find this to be of great help.
- Facebook page or Instagram: Keeping discussions active and promoting interaction make social media sites successful. If a church decides to set up its own Facebook page, someone needs to maintain and read it every day.
The Upper Room, an ecumenical and interdenominational division of Discipleship Ministries, is focusing more and more on how to reach older adults — and finding that incorporating technology is key to its strategy to provide spiritual formation experiences for all ages.
Face to Face was originally intended to provide a life-changing experience for those who physically could not withstand the full 72-hour program of Walk to Emmaus. Organizers soon found that the primary focus was on helping people deal with end-of-life and grief issues.
In the four years since the launch of Face to Face, the staff has also seen changes in the use of electronic media within this group. More and more older adults are providing The Upper Room with their email addresses, connecting to their Emmaus community’s Facebook page and ordering online resources ranging from the Upper Room Daily Devotional to electronic books. Upper Room staff anticipate more older adults participating in its e-learning courses.
It just makes sense that this growing part of the population — more and more of whom will have used electronic devices in their work and personal lives — will continue to use technology in their spiritual formation.
How is your church reaching out to older adults, especially those not presently in our churches? Are you seeing — and responding to — the growing need to use technology to invite and connect in the best ways possible with this varied group?
Craig Kennet Miller is the Director of Congregational Development at Discipleship Ministries and author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life and iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age. He also is the co-host of “The Future of …” podcast at www.umcdiscipleship.org.
Hess B. “Doc” Hall, Jr. is the Director of Older Adult Spiritual Formation Programs at The Upper Room, focusing on offerings for those in the second half of life, including Face to Face. He also relates to The United Methodist Church’s Committee on Older Adult Ministries, a General Conference committee.