By JIM NICHOLS
Do not laugh. It will happen to you someday if it has not already.
It was some years ago now and the first was just a small white card with a red stripe and blue stripe across the top. It was rather thin cardboard and began to curl up on the edge soon because it did not quite fit into my billfold. Perforated along the bottom edge, I had to punch it out from a larger sheet I received in the mail. Applying for it and receiving it marked another transition time in my life. Now I had a Medicare card.
From an insurance point of view, I did not really need a Medicare card. I was fully and gainfully employed and had a solid health insurance package from my place of employment. I did sense, however, that there was some societal (if not legal) need for me to apply for this Medicare card when I turned sixty-five, so I did. The only functional value at the time was as backup to my primary health insurance. It also served as an identification card of sorts; it identified that I was now part of the Medicare generation.
Early in the twentieth century President Teddy Roosevelt’s platform promoted a national health care system. The idea languished until the 1940s when President Harry Truman brought forth the idea again, a national healthcare system for all Americans. Dormant until the Kennedy administration in the 1960s, it was finally realized during the time of Lyndon Johnson. The new program initiated in 1965 was designed for individuals sixty-five and older. Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, received the first Medicare cards. By April 2022, 64.5 million Americans were receiving healthcare benefits through Medicare; that was 20 percent of the national healthcare spending.
About the time I got my first Medicare card (they are a bit more modern looking these days, though still quite plain), I was beginning my involvement as a chaplain in various medical settings. That caused me to consider whether pastoral care has any age implications. When a chaplain enters a hospital room or home does it make any difference how old that chaplain is (or appears)?
My first chaplain training group consisted of individuals generally significantly younger than I. That allowed them to work with more energy, but sometimes inhibited the effect they were able to have in terms of bringing a greater measure of peace to a situation. They brought great skills, but our modern world, for better or worse, sometimes pays inappropriate attention to the value of age. A subsequent training group had an average age higher than the first group, and their reflections on their work showed that consolation and pastoral doors were opened that might be closed to someone younger.
Clearly, these are generalizations and case situations differ. Responding as a chaplain in the emergency room following a car accident elicits different patient and family needs than another patient’s night before cancer surgery the next day. Some of the most fruitful chaplain experiences I have had were ones in which there were two of us present with different skills (and ages).
Whereas in the hospital the patient ages vary, hospice patients are generally older as they approach the end of life. I believe my graying hair is an advantage there.
Speaking about the advantages of one age over another, of course, is a rather meaningless consideration. Since none of us can change our age, we must take advantage of where we are. Higher energy levels and fresh faces are an advantage in dealing with some patients. On the other hand, I carry my Medicare card in my pocket and hope my apparent “maturity” will allow me to minister in some ways and to some individuals that a “non-card carrier” could not. I had a chaplain friend tell me once that being a chaplain was one of the few jobs in which it was not a disadvantage to grow older.
There is no “best” age. Each carries its own blessings and trials. Our challenge is to use our chronologic situation to bring God’s peace and grace to whatever is our current place. This applies not only to professional chaplains, but to each of us as we try to be God’s people.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain