Homes, Retirement and Nursing

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The philosophy and the procedures of Mennonites in providing retirement programs have undergone drastic change in Canada and the United States, particularly since the 1940s. It was historically Anabaptist and Mennonite for the church to be concerned about the welfare of the whole body. In Europe the care for the aged, the indigent, the ill and the orphans had always been an integral part of the religious and social life of the total Mennonite body. In North America to provide for aging parents and even other relatives who needed help had been considered largely a local responsibility carried primarily by the family and secondarily by the local congregation. In this statement we do not include the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites who follow a time-honored and, for them, a very successful program, for retiring parents and grandparents who live in an independent unit or a house called the "grossdoddy house" next to an adult child or children who can help meet nearly every need.

The first Mennonite homes for the aged were established between 1894 and 1899. While county or other government agencies had provided emergency care, the feeling has been that the church has the responsibility of Christian sharing. For instance, the first residents of the Mennonite Home at Eureka, Illinois, established in 1922, were largely indigent Mennonites from the Midwest who had no responsible relatives or other persons willing to take care of them. In 1987 this home was called Maple Lawn Homes and emphasized retirement living in all its stages and ignored the idea that everybody over 65 was an old person with special needs.

Frequently homes for older persons operated by Mennonites are sponsored by community organizations. They are often located in larger Mennonite communities, where Mennonites have taken part in organizing and then have been asked to operate the institutions. The Christian motivation is still a very important factor but now it goes far beyond serving members of the Mennonite churches; in most of these institutions non-Mennonites outnumber Mennonites. For instance, in the late 1980s 62 percent of the 850 residents at Greencroft, Inc., at Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana (the largest institution of its type in the state) were not Mennonites. Retirement institutions are no longer thought of as places to serve only the indigent, those who do not have caring families, or those who cannot live independently. Currently the number of homes for older persons in Canada and the United States under Mennonite auspices is more than 100, a growth of more than 800 percent over the 12 institutions operating in 1940. Over thirty of these homes are in Canada.

The earliest Mennonite homes in Canada were Altenheim der Bergthaler Mennoniten-Gemeinden (1918-1938, Gretna, Manitoba), Tabor Home for the Aged (1921, Morden, Manitoba), Braeside Home (1942, now Fairview Mennonite Home, Cambridge, Ontario), Rosenort Home for the Aged (1945, Rosthern, Saskatchewan), Bethania Home for the Aged and Infirm (1946, Winnipeg, Manitoba), and Altenheim (1947, Winkler, Manitoba). 

The greater change in philosophy comes with the purposes behind these communities or institutions. These are full-service retirement communities ranging from complete independent living facilities to full-scale nursing service and services between. These homes are living centers and not places to wait for death. Even the names have changed from "Old People's Home", "Beulahland," or "Sunset Home," to "Green Hills Center," "Pleasant Manor," "Swiss Village," or "Parkview."

There are numerous reasons why people by choice or through necessity spend their later years in retirement communities and in cases of severe physical or mental impairment or both, may need a nursing home:

(1) While in 1900 and for some years after, most North American Mennonites were rural, in 1985 only about 15 percent were. The large farm residence built for large families which sometimes served three generations at one time, is gone.

(2) Mennonite families no longer average six or seven children, as in the early 1900s or even three or four as did the families of the late 1950s, but are about the same as the national average of fewer than two children. Rural children, with little education, lived close to their parents, much as the Amish continue to do, and these children cared for remaining parents in the home community.

(3) The population has many more older persons. In 1900 an infant could expect to live 47 years. In 1987 the expectancy is 75 years, 71 for males and 79 for females. Sixty percent of people over 65 are women. The most rapidly growing group, is women beyond 85. In 1900 four percent of the population was over the age of 65; in 1987, 12 percent is.

(4) In 1900 with short life expectancy and large families, it was typical for one parent to die while there were still one or two children in the home who took care of the parent. The home in this sense was unbroken and did not call for the parent to change residence.

(5) With small families and expanded longevity, in the late 20th century the average couple can expect to live together 15-20 years after the last child leaves home. Fifty-year marriages are no longer a novelty. These longer marriages call for quite a different type of housing and living accommodation than earlier met the needs of rural people.

(6) Older persons who reach 65 today are in better condition financially, educationally, and physically than were their elders. Before government programs like Social Security in the United States or Social Insurance in Canada, if people retired or came to poor health and could no longer work, they were likely do be dependent on others. Two-thirds of the people who reached retirement were dependent upon others, chiefly children or other relatives before 1935. They had little choice regarding a retirement community or facility. The generation retiring in the 1970s and 1980s also benefited from rapid economic expansion and considerable prosperity in North America after World War II, a marked contrast with those retiring between 1900 and 1950, whose prime earning years were characterized by the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the general economic depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.

(7) With small demand, earlier church institutions for older persons had somewhat the same appeal as the "County Farm," or the "Poor Farm" that society provided for the indigent. In the 1980s many older persons can afford to enter a retirement community of their choice and many others can do so because of the good graces of the government which subsidizes facilities for those less financially viable.

(8) The demand for housing facilities in the future seems staggering. In the United States in the 1980s there were 29,000,000 persons older than 65 years. In Canada there are slightly less than one-tenth that number. By 2020 years the figure is projected to have grown to 65,000,000 for the United States and a comparable increase for Canada. Should Mennonites attempt to double the number of retirement centers for older citizens or should they look to alternate means, such as increased home services? In recent years Mennonites have put little money into brick and mortar, and have instead left this burden to the governments of Canada and the United States. It looks as though, because of the staggering increases of hospital, medical and nursing home costs, that some rationing of services will be required. Which ones are ethical and expedient? What are the alternatives?

(9) A new trend has developed in facilities for older persons, largely since the 1960s. This is the retirement community for those who can now live independently and wish to prolong this independence by moving to facilities such as courts or apartments free from snow removal, grass mowing, home maintenance, and other obligations. However, they do want close like-minded neighbors in a friendly Christian community which provides activities and programs in which they are free to participate or not. Also, these persons want to be part of a community in which they are eligible for further health services as the ensuing years may dictate--food services, home health care, smaller living quarters with more supervision and, if need be, a nursing home. This more recent retirement dimension has been a very important factor in the tremendous growth of retirement communities under Mennonite auspices.

(10) The church and the community are beginning to see that in the growth concept of wholeness the physical and biological aspects of the aging process are only a small part of growth and we must give more attention to the intellectual, social, and spiritual resources of our elders and not become complacent because we have made them more comfortable physically and extended the days of their years.

Mennonites in Germany in the 1980s operated retirement-nursing homes at Thomashof near Karlsruhe, Burgweinting, Enkenbach, and Bad Oldesloe; Mennonites in The Netherlands had 19 such homes offering a wide range of care in 1985. French Mennonites operated Résidence Rosemontoise at Valdoie near Dijon. Lar Betesda, near Curitiba, Brazil, opened in 1978. Mennonites in other countries use a variety of public and private institutions, including families, to care for aging members. Traditionalist Mennonite groups in Latin America (Old Colony Mennonites, Sommerfeld Mennonites) depend on family care of the elderly in a manner similar to that described for the Amish in North America. The communal life of the Hutterian Brethren makes possible integrated care for the elderly without establishing independent homes or apartment complexes.


Lists of North American retirement and nursing homes were published in the 2001 Mennonite Directory, Doopsgezinde Jaarbuch, and Mennonitisches Jahrbuch. Not completely listed in these directories are the Church of God in Christ Mennonite retirement and nursing homes: Linden Nursing Home, Linden Alta.; Greenland Home, Sainte Anne, Man.; Bethel Home, Montezuma, Ks.; Valhaven Home, Lehman, B.G.

For further reading see:

American Association of Retired Persons. A Profile of Older Americans, 1985.

The Church and Its Older People, a report of the conference at Goshen College, Goshen, IN, 31 October-2 November 1961.

Fischer, David Hockett. Growing Old in America. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1977.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. 4th ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 168-71.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974: 247-49.

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

Smith, Tilman R. In Favor of Growing Older. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981.

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

Author(s) Andrew R. Shelly
Tilman R. Smith
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Shelly, Andrew R. and Tilman R. Smith. "Homes, Retirement and Nursing." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 17 Aug 2022.,_Retirement_and_Nursing&oldid=143601.

APA style

Shelly, Andrew R. and Tilman R. Smith. (1989). Homes, Retirement and Nursing. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 August 2022, from,_Retirement_and_Nursing&oldid=143601.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 797-799; vol. 5, pp. 390-391. All rights reserved.

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