Church, society need new perspective on aging, advocate says
June 6, 2005
A UMC.org Feature
By Neill Caldwell*
It was on a youth retreat that 16-year-old Larry Minnix felt the call to ministry—a ministry that led him to dedicate three decades to serving and advocating for America's oldest citizens.
"This is what I'm supposed to be doing," says Minnix, now 58 and chief executive officer of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging in Washington.
"We're having a positive impact on Congress and the (Bush) administration. There is still lots of work in front of us as our old system of care and services is starting to break down. We're putting new wine in old wineskins that are starting to crack."
Minnix is an ordained United Methodist pastor who has been leading the association for four years. Previously, he directed Wesley Woods, a large Atlanta retirement community formed in 1954 by leaders of the United Methodist Church's North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference and Emory University.Wesley Woods is now a component of Emory Healthcare, and Minnix helped found a geriatric hospital on campus during his 28 years there.
Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Conference praises Minnix for always approaching his work with "the heart of a pastor."
Ken Weber, chief executive officer of Wesley Woods, says Minnix is highly respected by his peers. "He has a strong ability to look at the large picture and to determine strategies for services for our adults, and to pull organizations together," Weber says.
Through the association, Minnix is providing the kind of senior advocacy for the nation that he provided in Atlanta for nearly three decades. He works closely with members of Congress and the White House to provide education and resources.
The association represents more than 5,600 nonprofit nursing homes, retirement communities, assisted living and senior housing facilities, and community service organizations. Its members serve more than 1 million older Americans.
Age discrimination is a huge problem in the United States, Minnix says. The nation's older citizens are undervalued, and its way of caring for them is in dire need of reform, he says.
Part of the problem, he says, is that the culture's perception of its aged population is "based on the incorrect assumption that life is on the rise until the mid-30s or mid-40s, and then starts to decline. Every stage of life has its unique purposes, and we're uniquely gifted to carry them out. Look at Abraham and Sarah. The religious community needs to address this. It's still an issue we don't want to talk about."
The challenge for the United States is to reinvigorate a system that already has many of the necessary tools in place. "In almost every community in the country we have the elements of the 'Great Society'—acute care, help for the poor, Meals on Wheels, hospice—but none work well together," he says. "Some are over-funded, some are under-funded. Rules conflict or are interpreted in different ways in different parts of the country. It's too complicated. This is where we need political vision in Washington."
Minnix sees Medicare as a solid program that needs a housing component. Medicaid, on the other hand, is a system of fragmented services that are inconsistently funded. "We need to step back and look at Medicaid," he says. "It should be a safety net for the … most poor, with standardized basic care rather than minimum standards. It should not be an estate planning program."
Minnix backs the Bush administration's efforts to adjust Social Security to "avoid big problems later." However, he calls putting Social Security savings onto the individual "a huge shift that would change important dynamics in the system."
"People need some incentive to plan for their financial future and their long-term health care," he says. "If people are incapable of doing that, then society is responsible, and that's something that is very Methodist. It's all about the social ministry of the church and the theological idea of why we do what we do. Evangelism is to proclaim salvation, and salvation at its heart is health and healing. Jesus was a healer who started a social movement. He said, 'If you do it to the least of these…' That's the example we're supposed to follow."
Minnix favors expanding faith-based initiatives to tap into the wealth of resources and the sprawling network of faith communities throughout the country.
"The church, the synagogue and the mosque are the most accessible, least expensive, more caring places we have available to us," he says. "We need the religious community to take a long look at aging issues and to offer service delivery like adult day care, support groups, honoring seniors as role models. Many of the things done at the doctor's office can be done at the church instead. The government is not going to solve all our problems."
How can individuals help? Minnix calls on church members to volunteer, contribute money and put aging issues at the heart of worship.
"When it comes to human need, there is no political spin," he says. "Conservative or liberal, things like Alzheimer's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease don't pay any attention to where you fall in the political spectrum."
*Caldwell is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C.
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