Getting Ready for an Aging Society: 
An Interview with Bernadette DiGiulian

Bernadette DiGiulian ’83 M.Div. is a Catholic laywoman in Branford, CT, with long experience as a chaplain and elder care advocate. She operates her own geriatric case management company and is founder/president of the Shoreline Elder Care Alliance, which provides elders with resource referrals, education, and professional services. 

REFLECTIONS: Are congregations ready for the surging numbers of older people in society?

DIGIULIAN: It’s an irony that churches are filled with older people now and yet, in many cases, churches aren’t preparing members to embrace aging. There’s a lot of denial. I talk to church leaders about aging, but it’s clear that what I have to say isn’t sexy in the way issues of youth, social justice, or social action are. But the aging issue is social action. Clergy just need to see it that way.

REFLECTIONS: What about individuals? Have you seen a shift in attitude?

DIGIULIAN: The culture is changing. There simply are more older people out there – on the street, in movies, in TV ads about elder care. It’s bound to raise awareness. Some years ago there was a widespread lack of preparation. The attitude was: “I’m not old yet! I’m not ready, and I don’t need to be.” The plan was to wait for a crisis. Nothing was in place. More people realize today you have to prepare. The myth of individualism says being independent means never asking for help. But that’s nonsense. As you get older, get help when you need it – and accept it. This might mean having an aide come in to help you get ready in the morning or drive you to places. A little help gives you some energy for other activities that enhance independence. 

REFLECTIONS: How does spirituality change with age?

DIGIULIAN: Older people get labeled as stubborn and rigid, but I don’t find that to be true. In my experience, older people seek God in a broader way, a less parochial way, than they did before. They become more reflective. Churches can help them along on that – give them opportunities to discuss how they feel about their earlier life, their current life, the afterlife. 

REFLECTIONS: What should congregations be doing?

DIGIULIAN: Bring specialists in to speak. Sponsor a series on hearing loss, diabetes, memory loss. Have someone speak from the Visiting Nurse Associations of America or a local home health care providing agency. Do a health fair. Bring in an elder care attorney. Talk about what preparation means. Have you arranged for power of attorney? Do you have a trustworthy person to talk to about finances? Consider getting a healthcare agent who you can tell what you’d want if you could no longer speak for yourself. It will enable you to share your thoughts about life and death and have someone in place to speak for you if it is ever needed. 

REFLECTIONS: How can a congregation stay connected with a member who can no longer get to church?

DIGIULIAN: It’s very sad to see how many older people are forgotten once they can’t go to church. They might have been members for 60 years, but then they go to assisted living or a nursing home, and the church gets a new minister, and soon they’re left out. 

   Congregations should think creatively, and some do. I knew a woman who was the church organist for many years but then went to an assisted living facility. Her church arranged for the minister to visit her every other week, and a lay group came on the alternate weeks and did a Bible study with her. They’d record her voice reading from Scripture, and then play the recording at worship the next week. What a wonderful idea that was.

REFLECTIONS: In your experience, do people have trouble adjusting to retirement?

DIGIULIAN: Often it’s hard. People saw themselves as doing important work, and now they don’t feel important. Men especially experience this, but in the future more and more women will. Lots of factors are involved. It’s important to be connected to friends or family: you still feel valuable when other people still care. I think people with a strong faith commitment do better. They’re more accepting of this new phase, more trusting of God.

   Life review is important, recounting one’s talents and abilities and how these helped the world. For younger seniors this helps them see how they might put some of their talents to use in new ways, such as volunteerism. For older seniors it gives them a way to feel good about themselves and celebrate that. 

REFLECTIONS: What are you learning with age?

DIGIULIAN: I’m hoping to become more tolerant of myself, tolerant of change. I was very active in church and community, but younger people inevitably take over and do things differently, perhaps better. So I try to see the bigger picture: I was part of something and made a contribution, but there comes a time to step aside and let it go. It’s no good to feel regretful. I want to praise the new contributions of others.