CLEARWATER, Fla. (RNS) A counseling clinic here that helps the elderly deal with depression has a waiting list of several months.
Even affordable housing here is too costly for retirees whose investments tanked in 2008, or whose pensions were squandered by mindless employers and whose average Social Security check is around $1,100.
Isolated in houses they cannot sell or in half-empty apartment buildings, many elderly wear a haunted look as they peer into their futures. They worry about outliving their funds, burdening their children, losing their independence. They try to stay busy, but find that sometimes even churches can't offer them volunteer opportunities.
The face of aging in America isn't a pretty one. Not because the flesh is sagging, but because the nation that once built schools, malls and suburbs for baby boomer families when they were young has turned against its elderly.
Opportunistic politicians seeking to preserve tax benefits for their wealthy patrons assault Medicare as a "socialistic" entitlement serving leeches. They take aim at Social Security as undeserved, even though recipients basically receive funds they themselves contributed over many years of working.
Banks lure the elderly into credit card debt, then slap on interest rates edging toward 40 percent and then seize property. Banks and some states siphoned off funds intended to ease mortgage stress.
If you take the time to listen, you will hear one horror story after another. People who once shared typical middle-class stories about careers and children's exploits now share dread about losing what little they have left.
One fear, church folks told me last weekend, is being "parked" -- sequestered in whatever housing can be found, cut off from others, watching funds evaporate, knowing that their safety net is shredded.
Wealth-chasing politicians might think retirement in America is one golf outing after another, punctuated by cocktail parties and shopping sprees. Maybe it is in their rarefied world. But in fact, retirement -- when those 65 and older can even afford to stop working -- is becoming a nightmare for many Americans.
Episcopalians from four congregations met here to find ways forward after five decades of nationwide decline. They understood immediately that their future doesn't lie in another round of surveys asking what they wanted -- that kind of inward-looking obsession has eviscerated churches. Rather, they need to look outward, to see the needs around them, and to ask what God wanted them to do about those needs.
When they named the needs that lie outside their doors in this aging area of Southwest Florida, they listed deteriorating health care, financial dread, isolation, loneliness, depression, inactivity, feeling ignored and aimlessness.
They will spend the next several months imagining and preparing responses to those needs. It's a risky venture. Looking outward is never easy for church communities, especially when many of their constituents are "snowbirds" who come for a few months to escape the winter cold, not to address problems of the year-round population.
Addressing emerging needs leads inevitably to change in religious systems that they have wanted to be stable and reassuring. I have been around churches long enough to recognize that fear of change is a powerful motivator.
But they got off to a good start, and they did so by deciding up front to collaborate, not to preserve "walls and borders," as one person put it. The real face of aging looks to them like a call to ministry.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
KRE/LEM END EHRICH