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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boundaries. Hopes. Concerns. Ask the matriarch.

Today’s question is one that I have found particularly difficult- ambiguous- challenging (what is the right word?)

Where is the line between handling something responsibly and overreacting?
How do you balance being caring with avoiding unnecessary drama?

Thankfully, our matriarchs have some really good wisdom to share, and I hope that you will chime in, too-

Got a question yourself?

On to the question:

We have an elderly (89) widowed gentleman in our congregation. He has made no secret of the fact that he would like to find a wife, and that he is interested in someone much younger than himself. Over the years since his wife's death, he has made a few flirtatious forays at some of the women in our very small congregation (usually when they are new), but nothing too serious. Until recently. He recently appeared in a new congregant's kitchen one morning! (Small town, we don't lock doors) And he was a bit testy when she asked him to leave. She is now afraid to come to church! Since he has never done anything quite like this before, we fear that this behavior may be indicative of some type of dementia on his part. We want to do the right thing by both of them. Any thoughts appreciated.

From Jan:
Dear Small-Town-Pastor-with-Scared-Parishioner,
It's possible that Widowed Gentleman might need practical tips on courting women in the 21st century ( showing up uninvited for breakfast is not cool.)

But more likely he is in need of a medical evaluation.
First question: Does he have any family nearby you can approach?
Second question: Is he looking for a wife b/c he is
a) lonely,
b) in need of a live-in nurse,
c) is among the lucky elderly with an active sex drive or
d) all the above?

I've seen this before when singles (of every age) stop participating in church life because someone else in the congregation is interested and they aren't and it's easier to find a new church or just stay home. Church is not a dating service though (although singles groups in mega-churches often serve that purpose). Church is a spiritual home where we should feel (and be) safe both with God and each other. (Yes, theologically speaking, God is hardly "safe" -- See Tolkien for references.) But our worship space is called a sanctuary for a reason.

Assuming there is no family close by, take an elder with you to visit Mr. Widower. Remind him that loneliness - especially after losing a spouse -- is terrible and the congregation wants to support and love him. But he must know that his pursuits are making other members uncomfortable.

If loneliness is his basic issue, are there others (men and/or women of any age) with whom he might hang out? One church in our area has a group of men who meet for breakfast every Saturday at the local diner: The ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out).

If he dislikes/even fears living alone (and he needs someone to take care of him) perhaps he needs a home health aid. Or maybe he can no longer live alone and he needs to move. Again - this is tricky without family support.

Also, supporting the woman is an obvious no-brainer. She deserves to worship (and live) in peace. Talk with her also, again with a sensitive elder, so she is sure that her church supports her and cares for her. She might want to lock her kitchen door. And sit with a friend in the pews.

From Karen:
I would definitely wonder if this was health related. Sometimes very small strokes can cause an uptick in impulsive behavior. Does this man have any relatives? Children? Nieces and Nephews? Before calling the police, I'd call someone from his family, if possible, to share these concerns. Especially if the relatives are not local, this would be important info to pass on. If no one has actually seen or talked to "Uncle Joe" in a few months, they might not be aware that all is not well. This might be a part of a pattern of erratic behavior for him and having this info might be the thing that finally spurs someone --a family member or other care giver--to take action.

From Singing Owl:
I have an aunt who is 91 and very frail, but her cognitive function is remarkable. Not everyone who is of advanced age gets dementia, but it is true that the great majority of individuals in their 80s and above will have at least the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease. I don't want to diagnose, but someone doing something highly inappropriate and then being angry when confronted are two large red flags that dementia may likely be present. Depending on your state, the system for dealing with elders varies. In some states (Wisconsin is one) every county has a county aging unit, often called the Department on Aging, and that is your first step in almost any issue. There may be something called an area agency on aging. Locate whoever deals with elder issues in your area and ask their advice. The Alzheimer's Association people are everywhere, are usually excellent, and they will probably be more than willing to talk with you and give some valuable direction.

Is there family? If so, they may be concerned but not know what to do, or they may be unaware. Does he live with someone? Often the people closest to an individual with dementia are actually the last to realize that something is wrong because they have lived with the gradual change for some time.

My impression is that your elderly Casanova lives alone, there will be other issues- food issues, sanitation, finances etc. Someone needs to check. I hope he has kids who love him. I'm concerned for his safety. As for your new church lady, you can at least tell her that you are taking what steps you can to deal with this kindly. Calling the police certainly might be necessary if he gets aggressive (which is possible) but is not the best option, and I hope you can deal with it another way before things escalate. Of course, if it is necessary, do it. However, I'm thinking of an elderly gentleman who was found "exposing himself" (turned out he was just getting ready to pee in a corner, also not a good thing) and the poor man spent a night in jail after being arrested. Not all police departments would have done this, thank God. But if you can get appropriate people involved soon it may be possible to avoid difficult confrontations and get him the help he probably needs.

From Abi:
The woman has the right to call the police on this guy even if it is dementia. And you need to call the man's family too. And if no family, perhaps protective services. I can only imagine how that woman feels. You say it was harmless, but you are going by what was told you, but what was not told you? Are there some members of the church that are his friend, that can steer him into the direction he needs to go for help, or know his family?

This cannot be delayed. Church is not a place for flirting indiscriminately for a wife, like that. Now I know people have found their spouses in church and that singles group is often a place to get dates. But what this guy has been doing is not a Christian witness nor safe. We aren't made to be "Pastor Match Makers" either. Sometimes we have to do the hard thing to be clear with people what church is for, and what it is not for. Church is to be a safe place, a sanctuary, and not a place to be hit on, or worry if someone is going to show up our house to hit on us.

At the same time, when a person does become widowed or experiences a major change in life, they are like to do things they would not normally do. Or may need help as there are other issues going on perhaps medical, social, emotional, or mental. If you notice a change in behavior attitude, etc. then address it sooner not later.

What do you think?


  1. Oh my.

    There was a gentleman in our congregation (RIP) who used to (in his younger years) regularly pinch bottoms of women at church who were not his wife--and the wife (RIP) was sometimes standing near him when he did it.

    People thought it was cute--at least the people who tell the story do. ("Oh, just a horny old toad!" I was told.)

    He made an untoward gesture once at me when I visited him in the hospital. I did not think it was cute and I told him so, in a pastorally appropriate way.

    I hope you are able to deal with this soon in a way that helps him and helps the women in your conngregation to feel safe. I think you've got some good advice here.

  2. One of the blessings of smally communities is that when support systems exists there is often a lot of contact between them. (one of the curses of small communities is that often support systems don't exist). Here I could easily contact -in an informal, no names way- the local counsellor who works with seniors for advice. It may be that the individual is known to the agencies who are trying to work with him and family on an action plan.

    ANd yes, if such inappropriate behoviour continues then protection of others is very high on the priority list (which may also be protecting him too).


  3. I don't have a response, but this is a really good question. I know how I'd handle it if someone showed up in my kitchen, but when it's 2 people from the church (and I'm not one of them), not in the building itself, it's a whole other ballgame. Great thing to bring up.

    (PS-- When I read the post, I thought, "Why are we doing Ask the Matriarchs on Wednesday this week?!" Good grief.)

  4. such sound advice Matriach's thank you :-)

  5. The thing about this one that makes me think there is something wrong is the "testiness" issue. I hate to say it, but if my husband were 80 and widowed, he might drop by to visit a new parishioner unannounced. He'd think it was neighborly. He would not however, let himself in. And he wouldn't get testy if asked to leave. In other words, there is more to this than hyper-gregariousness.

    I would definitely call a family or social service agency. And I'd lock my kitchen doors.

  6. This question is a good example of the variety of issues facing clergy. Who would have thought that the Call included this but it does...

  7. I have been on the end of a person like this, it was planned by him and I never saw it coming....(from behind). The cost to me has been terrible and the process long in becoming whole again. It was the sanctuary of the Chancel where I found safety from the attacker.

    Do not hesitate to tell her to lock her doors...all of them. She may have had something in the past that has made her respond by withdrawing so completely..this should be checked out as well. If so, it needs to be addressed so it won't build on itself. Fear crashes the immune system very quickly.

    Men get permission by all of society ('boys will be boys') except any of us who have been victims. Women have every right as men do to be safe...when it's them you need to find safety from...then society has again allowed this..we are all Children of God!

    Both of them (separately) need to be offered help and pastoral care in which they will be respected, yet find the actions dealt with, and what has been offered here already is good.

    Fear is not a Christian tool for any good for bringing love into anything....the two do not exist together. The Bible is clear on that too.

    Does your Church not have a Sexual Abuse Policy? It should be for all..clergy, members, adherents and visitors alike.

    We have a Privacy and Protection Policy called a Tender Trust. One was forged for our own church out of Church and Government Policies.

    The Sexual Abuse Policy is from Church Headquarters. Conferences see the Policy is set up with channels for respect for every individual..on both sides. It has a process in place...often I would hope most things can be resolved and ways to provide counseling, or healing can occur. Charges can also be laid as well.

    There was no Policy in place at the time I was dealing with this in my Pastorate. The man was an official in the church...not great stuff. But now, we are much more aware and careful, and have ways to protect as well as to deal with this.

    Prevention is best!

    My prayers accompany you ...

  8. My day job is with an agency that serves the elderly. A couple of suggestions:

    If this appears to be an isolated incident, but you do suspect that the Lonely Guy may be having cognitive/emotional problems related to age and loneliness, you can call your local council/commission on aging and make a referral. A social worker from the agency will call the individual, simply explain that friends and neighbors are concerned, and offer a variety of senior services. Many elders are socially isolated, and even having a daily visit from a meals-on-wheels driver, or going to a local senior center for a few hours, or similar social activity facilitated by being in the senior-services loop, can be helpful. And at least in my state most services are donation, not fee, based, so they're accessible to anyone. But...seniors of sound mind can refuse help, and often do, for a variety of reasons.

    If this gentleman's behavior is serial, and/or if he does other things that have the potential to hurt self or others (like driving badly, or severe self-neglect), your best step may be to call your local Adult Protective Services office. You can make a referral anonymously in most states, and in most states APS has a small window of opportunity in which they are mandated to respond to your call in some way. It is extremely difficult to legally prove incompetency, but at least making the referral brings the individual to the attention of other local helping professionals and starts a paper trail so that if his behavior continues/worsens there's a written record of it.

    Sidebar: One of my officemates is a social worker with experience in nursing home situations as well as with at-home seniors, and her strategy with "horned toads" and other problem individuals is to very strongly and bluntly tell them to cut it out. She talks about one client she knew long ago, a retired sailor with dementia, who constantly made passes and lewd remarks aimed at nursing home staff. He seemed to be re-living his days on shore leave;-) day my friend was called in to deal with him after he frightened a new employee with some obscene behavior, and she yelled at him the way a commanding officer would: "Sailor, what do you think your wife will do to you when you get home if she finds out you've been misbehaving with other women while you're in port?" She says he became very sheepish and apologetic, and his inappropriate behaviors lessened after that.


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