A senior trying to improve their health may consider a membership to the YMCA, a visit to a dietician, or weekly trips to the local senior center. But what if seniors could access health programming at a place they already frequent? Churches are increasingly turning their attention to the physical health of their congregation members, with youth basketball leagues, walking groups, and health screenings appearing at houses of worship around the country. Seniors in particular are poised to benefit from church-based health initiatives, as many older adults must cope with shrinking social networks and access to community resources as they age. Here are three church-based programs that seniors can get involved in to improve their wellness.
Obesity and diet-related diseases are on the rise among senior citizens, and church congregations are finding themselves especially hard hit: Studies by Purdue University and Northwestern University have shown that churchgoers are more likely to be overweight or obese than non-churchgoers, with some groups facing up to a 50 percent increase in obesity over their secular peers.
The religious community in New Orleans has taken notice of this troubling trend and decided to do something about it. Their program, called Strategies to Trim and Reduce, engages congregation members in 12 weeks of health education, nutrition, and physical fitness programming. The STAR program includes lessons on shopping for and cooking healthy food, tips for moderation, and information on diabetes and chronic disease prevention. This free program gives church attendees convenient access to health professionals, judgement-free group support, and a spiritual context to bring it all home.
Created by the non-denominational nonprofit Interfaith Care Partners in Houston, Texas, Gathering Place is a program for seniors coping with Alzheimer’s disease. Once or twice a month, caregivers can bring their clients or family members with Alzheimer’s to a participating church, giving full-time caregivers much-needed time off and seniors access to memory-boosting activities and community. During the three and a half hour program, seniors participate in memory-stimulating activities, gentle exercise, and socialization. The innovative Gathering Place program is offered free of charge and is available at nearly 40 churches throughout the greater Houston area.
Addiction is growing among seniors in America, but the signs of drug and alcohol misuse and abuse are often overlooked in a population where warning signs like irritability and confusion are easily mistaken for cognitive decline. Addiction to prescription painkillers is of particular concern for aging adults; a senior may be prescribed an opioid for chronic pain and later end up addicted. However, alcohol abuse is also a big issue among late-life adults; one study found that more than a third of drinkers age 60 and up have problematic drinking habits.
For many seniors, a lack of a social network is a major hurdle on the path to recovery. However, seniors who are involved in a church community may have a valuable tool at their disposal. A growing number of congregations are offering 12-step addiction recovery programs. While church attendance isn’t a prerequisite for meeting with a 12-step group, having a recovery tool available in a familiar environment can make it easier for seniors to address their substance issues.
Whether a senior is looking to slim down, manage a chronic illness, fight addiction, or care for their cognition as they age, there’s a good chance there’s a local church program designed to help. And working toward better health at church offers more than convenience and accessibility — it also allows seniors to make friends, deepen social connections, and build a support network they can lean on in times of need.