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By BOB MOOS
Dallas Morning News
When Ches Cochran's mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer early this year, he turned to his family's church for not only spiritual support but also practical advice on caregiving.
Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church has a gerontologist on its staff to help older church members and their families.
An expert in the biological, psychological and social aspects of aging, Dee Wadsworth is the go-to person when congregation members have questions about home care, Medicare or nursing care.
Mr. Cochran said Ms. Wadsworth helped his family find in-home caregivers for his 90-year-old mother and, later, gently explained the benefits of hospice care.
She was a frequent visitor at the woman's bedside during the final months and worked closely with the church's clergy to comfort the family.
"By handling some of the details, Dee took a burden off our family and allowed us to spend more quality time with our mother," Mr. Cochran said. "I'm not sure what we would have done without her."
Preston Hollow Presbyterian is one of a small but growing number of Dallas-area congregations employing social workers and other professionals in aging to act as resources for members facing the second half of life. At the moment, the gerontologists work mostly with large congregations.
"Only religious institutions with sizable memberships can justify the expense now. But as the older population doubles in the next 25 years, we'll see more demand for this mission," predicted Richard Gentzler, author of The Graying of the Church and director of the United Methodist Church's Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries.
Congregations probably can't provide all of the hands-on care themselves, but they can connect families with community services, said James Ellor, a professor at Baylor University's School of Social Work.
"As more Americans care for elderly parents, they will call on churches because they will want answers from people they can trust," he said. "Farsighted churches will bring in people with backgrounds in social work."
Because churches have long hired professionals in early childhood development to work with children, Ms. Wadsworth expects more will employ professionals in aging to serve older churchgoers.
More than a third of Preston Hollow Presbyterian's 2,700 members are 55 or older, she said.
"The problem isn't that people lack information; it's that people have so much information, they often don't know how to separate the fair from the biased," Ms. Wadsworth said. "That's where I can help."
The gerontologist, for example, can give families two or three nursing homes to consider.
"I don't make recommendations, but church members routinely tell me of the experiences they've had with facilities, and I'm able to pass that information on to others just beginning to look," she said.
Ms. Wadsworth is a firm believer that seniors should remain active and independent as long as possible. Describing herself as "a landlocked cruise director," she started a tai chi class at Preston Hollow Presbyterian a year ago and has expanded the art and bridge classes.
Gerontologists who work for religious institutions tend to view their jobs as a calling.
Richard Stanford left a law practice after 25 years to earn a master's degree in gerontology. He became director of older adult ministries at Highland Park United Methodist Church last year, after working at a retirement community.
"The change in careers was a natural progression for me," Mr. Stanford said. "As an attorney, I did estate planning and discovered how much I enjoy seniors. Now, I'm able to help them find meaning in retirement. Older can mean better, even though our society doesn't think so."
Mr. Stanford estimated that he helps 400 church members a year. He organizes outings, lines up speakers on retirement living and answers senior-related questions from the church's pastoral care staff.
Debbie Reinhardt-Young, a social worker at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, doesn't see herself as a replacement for a minister's spiritual guidance.
Her job, she said, is to resolve more down-to-earth issues. One day, she explains Medicare's drug coverage to a senior who just turned 65. Another day, she takes a recent widow to lunch to discuss how to live alone.
"People feel comfortable asking me for advice because they see me every Sunday and through the week," she said. "I'm 43 but old at heart."
Ms. Reinhardt-Young visits shut-ins, organizes support groups for caregivers and oversees a "lending closet" filled with walkers, wheelchairs and other medical equipment donated by church members.
Dozens of church members recovering from injuries or surgery have saved hundreds of dollars by not having to buy such apparatus, she said.
Peggy Papert, the social worker at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, said congregation members sometimes call her to help sort through the problems of caring for a frail parent in another state.
"Some families become concerned about what's going on with their parents' care, so I check with the social workers and therapists on the other end, discuss the case and give everyone some peace of mind," she said.
Ms. Papert has spent her entire life at Temple Emanu-El and has known many of her seniors since she was a child.
"They seem like aunts and uncles to me," she said. "There isn't another job that would be more personally satisfying to me."
Reprinted with permission