Aged, Care for

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Among those with special needs have always been the poor, the sick, the afflicted, and the widowed. Older persons, particularly women, have often fallen into one or more of the above categories. In North America over 60 percent of those above 65 years are female. The population is becoming older and more female. The fastest growing age group is women over 85. More than half of the older women are widows, and in 1990 there were five times as many widows as widowers in North America.

Christ spoke most frequently about his concerns for the poor, the orphans, the oppressed, the broken-hearted, and the widows. There was good reason. "In every code except Hebrew the widow had rights of inheritance but in Hebrew law she was completely ignored" (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4:842). The widow's plight was often the older person's plight, male or female. Even on the cross Jesus thought about his mother. He told John, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home (John 19:27). The early church continued a mission and ministry of compassion.

The early Anabaptists were people of deep compassion. Menno Simons stated, "True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.... It clothes the naked. It feeds the hungry. It comforts the sorrowful. it shelters the destitute. It serves those who harm it. It binds up that which is wounded. It becomes all things to all men." The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632), art. 9, states that deacons are "to look after and care for the poor and honourable aged widows." The ministry of deacons and deaconesses found expression first among the Dutch Mennonites, and it was continued among the Mennonites in Russia and in America. Homes for the aged were established in The Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries. These homes provided shelter and care primarily for the poor of the faith community. During the late 16th century and through the 17th century, prosperous Dutch Mennonites contributed money and provisions to persecuted brethren in Switzerland and Germany, as well as to charitable causes not involving fellow Mennonites.

In early North American history, the elderly were highly respected as persons of authority and power. They were few in number -- two percent of the population in 1775 compared to 12 percent of the population in the 1980s. Also, the elderly were equal in education, and far ahead in experience, of the younger generations of that time. The population of the 13 colonies in 1775 was 90 percent rural, and the elderly controlled the means of production for more than a century. A certain degree of deference had to be shown the elderly if younger persons were to achieve later independence.

In 1900 and somewhat after, families were large, and typically one parent died before the last child left home. Life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Older parents expected care from the family, particularly in the case of a surviving spouse. Children felt a sense of duty and responsibility toward parents, and the parent or parents remained in the family home, with one or more of the children responsible to extend care generally until death of the parent. Education, broader employment opportunities, smaller families, greater life expectancy, and financial independence of parents (through government social insurance programs and children who had broader job opportunities) changed this. Accordingly, institutions began to develop to meet the needs of the elderly, needs formerly met by the family.

The Mennonite churches in North America were very slow in going beyond the family and the local congregation in caring for the elderly, sick, mentally and physically handicapped, widows, poor, and orphans. Local congregations did have alms funds to which members contributed, particularly at the time of communion services, but these funds were very limited and very cautiously administered. This was the general pattern until the end of the 19th century. However the early 20th century saw the tremendous discrepancy between, on the one hand, the kind words and thoughts about God and the church taking care of the widows, the poor, and the aged, and, on the other hand, what actually happened, particularly to widows.

The first home for the elderly sponsored by American Mennonites was the Salem Home for the Aged at Hillsboro, Kansas, opened in 1894. This was only 10 years after the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren had come from Russia, where Mennonites for many years had made many significant contributions to aging persons and to health care in general. The second home was the General Conference Mennonite home at Frederick, Pennsylvania, established in 1896; the third was the Welsh Mountain Samaritan Home established by the Lancaster Mennonite Conference in 1898, and the fourth was the Bethesda Home, at Goessel, Kansas, in 1899. Only seven homes were added in the next 40 years. These early homes were operated for the care of older persons who were unable to care for themselves, but who did not require hospital attention. The primary purpose was to provide care for older members of the churches in a Christian atmosphere. Generally these homes provided for Mennonite indigents who had no responsible relatives or other persons willing to take care of them. By 1940 there were only 12 homes among all the Mennonites in North America established for older persons.

The earliest Mennonite homes in Canada included Fairview Mennonite Home in Cambridge, Ontario. established in 1943, Mennonite Nursing Home in Rosthern, Saskatchewan in 1944, Bethania Mennonite Home in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1945, Linden Nursing Home in Linden, Alberta in 1945 and Menno Home in Abbotsford, British Columbia in 1953.

Since 1940 the development of church-administered facilities for aging persons has increased more than 800 percent. In 1987 there were more than 100 Mennonite-related homes for older persons in the United States and Canada. An aspect more important than taking care of material needs has also emerged. In many places Mennonites are attempting to capitalize on the total resources of older persons and to use these resources to benefit the church and the community.

Mennonites have recognized that the needs of all people for food, clothing, and shelter are only a part of wholeness and wellness. This broadened concept has led to the development of a wide range of health ministry services which carries Mennonites far beyond the "Orphan's Homes" and "Old People's Homes" approach. it takes into account that aging is growth toward maturity from conception to physical death. In preparation for wellness in the later years, a healthy life-style must begin early. The congregation, with the larger conference or denomination, must provide a variety of mutual aid and wellness ministries which will help older people to live independently longer. The broad sweep of services now organized under the Mennonite Health Association (Elkhart, Indiana, USA) offers programs of wholeness and wellness, which should enable each to realize that, regardless of our birth dates we are, at any given time, determining what kinds of older persons we will be. The Mennonite council for Aging Ministries still carries an important role for older persons who need long term care, nursing services, and retirement programs.

However, other ancillary organizations were considered necessary and in place by 1990, including the Inter-Mennonite Council on Aging, Mennonite Mental Health Services, Mennonite Council for Hospitals, Mennonite Developmental Disability Services, Mennonite Child Care Association, Mennonite Medical Association, Mennonite Nurses Association, Mennonite Chaplains Association, Mennonite Mutual Aid, and Canadian Mennonite Mental Health Assembly.

Mennonite formal institutional programs for older persons will continue to grow because of the sheer potential in numbers. In 1988 there are 32,000,000 persons 65 and above in Canada and the United States. That number is conservatively projected to be 67,000,000 in 2030. Mennonite norms presently follow the national norms quite closely.


American Association of Retired Persons. "A Profile of Older Americans, 1986."

Rempel, Edwin F., ed., Congregational Health Ministries Handbook. Elkhart, IN : Mennonite Health Association, 1987.

Smith, C. Henry Smith. Mennonites of America. Goshen, 1909.

Yoder, Michael L. "Findings from the 1982 Mennonite Census," Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 307-49.

Gemeinde Unterwegs (Nov. 1984), sp. issue.

Author(s) Tilman R Smith
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Smith, Tilman R. "Aged, Care for." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 23 May 2022.,_Care_for&oldid=171976.

APA style

Smith, Tilman R. (1990). Aged, Care for. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2022, from,_Care_for&oldid=171976.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 10-11. All rights reserved.

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