Isolation is one of the cruelest aspects of growing older. Activities may have to be curtailed because of chronic pain, the difficulty of night driving, limited mobility or responsibilities to family members. People may be reluctant to admit they miss the joy of companionship and mutual accomplishment. Not wanting to complain, they drop out of sight.
One simple, effective means of reintegrating isolated older people into the life of a monthly meeting is to form interest groups. Groups that meet during the day will tend to attract retired people, and can focus on any topic–memoir writing, spiritual study, singing, mutual support for decluttering, knitting, or tai chi, for example.
Small groups confer many benefits on a monthly meeting. In addition to being enjoyable in themselves, they encourage closer ties within the community, foster leadership in those who convene or take other roles, encourage the recognition of members’ gifts, and can give early warning of situations that may require the attention of a Care Committee.
It’s not hard to start an interest group. Announcements after meeting can introduce the idea. Then post sign-up sheets to collect names and interests, contact information, and preferred day and time for meetings. It’s best to have a convener in the group and someone else, not necessarily a group member, to send reminders and receive regrets and messages such as need for rides.
Groups can be completely open or specific to gender or age range. In either case, to serve pastoral concerns, established groups should welcome newcomers. The role of convener could be held by an enthusiast of the topic or could rotate. Many people enjoy visiting in each others’ homes; others feel most comfortable in their meetinghouse.
A small group that meets over a long time can give glimpses into the depth of souls that we miss in other contexts. One group of Friends, who for many years spent an annual weekend retreat together, met during a time when several of them were in crisis. On Sunday morning after worship, the eldest, the convener, suggested they all do clearness for each other. Time was short–each would have only twenty minutes of the group’s worshipful attention. “We can do it”, the eldest said. “We know each other’s hearts so well”. That clearness process became a cherished achievement of the group.
Not every group reaches such intense cohesion and mutual support, but any small group can bring joy into the lives of its members. Recently I heard an 82 year old member of a study group exclaim “This group is the high point of my week!” At another session, a recently retired member, exhausted from caring for aged parents, confided, “I feel so affirmed in this group. Loved even.” Members of one writing group frequently remark that the group has fostered friendships and deepened their connection to their meeting. Participants in PYM’s Spiritual Formation often say their small groups were the best part of the program.
Forming small interest group can have more powerful effects on a community than many other, more costly or labor-intensive pastoral care. Even small monthly meetings can find topics to enrich connections between Friends to alleviate the isolation that can afflict old age.
Rose Ketterer is a member of Haddonfield Friends Meeting