I am sure you’ve heard the old adage that married life begins again when the last child leaves home and the dog dies. Frequently I also hear people say they moved to a new house without a forwarding address so their adult children could not find them and move back home. But, that does not work.
Several years ago I called up a friend to check on him, and I asked him jokingly how many of his three adult children were currently living in his house. His answer was 2.5. Two had been there for a while and the third was moving in the next month.
This new beginning for married life is often called the Empty Nest. When married couples reach this stage of life, there are a lot of things they have to renegotiate and think about in new ways. One is that they begin to have more health and wellness issues. The body is not what it used to be. There may be actual chronic or acute diseases they manage. They may be out of shape and overweight. They are taking maintenance drugs that go beyond a simple aspirin and vitamin each day.
They begin to think about their career. Will they ever get to the position in their career that they have always believed they deserved to achieve, or will they have to be satisfied with something less? Do they want to stay with their same company for the rest of their life, or is this a time to make a switch before they get too old for people to consider them? Empty Nesters may even become angry they cannot control what is going on in the workplace, but they sure do have a place of authority in their congregation and can control some things there.
Financial security is a concern. Based on current financial projections and without too many more economic disasters in society, will they have enough money for retirement? At the same time, in this Empty Nest stage of life there are some things they have always wanted to do when they did not have as heavy an obligation for children. Of course, there still are those educational debts, and the cost of weddings that impacted reserve and retirement funds.
These are just a few of the issues typical Empty Nest households face. It is not unusual for them to wake up one morning and realize they are in an emotional vise because they have become a part of the Club Sandwich Generation.
The Club Sandwich Generation
This is when an Empty Nest household discovers that it is responsible for three other generations of family. One or more aging parents have various dependency needs on their Empty Nest adult children. One or more adult children are not near as independent financially and emotionally as you had hoped they would be by now. Grandchildren are coming along, and you have a strong, deep desire to focus on relating to them, and concern about the value systems their learning.
Your congregation believes you do not have the same family obligations you once had, because they are now unseen to the congregation. Therefore, they begin asking you to take on additional places of responsibility, approach you about making more significant financial contributions, and expect you to be as regular in your attendance as you were when there were children at home.
You, on the other hand, want to go off in your camper vehicle more weekends, buy additional weeks of your vacation timeshare, go see your grandchildren, or realize you must spend more weekends with your aging parent who lives several hundred miles away. Additionally, you would love to spend more Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading, and sipping coffee in your den or on the deck.
All of this and we have not even mentioned marriage!
I was explaining all of this to my friend Jack the other day when we got into a discussion about how congregations seem to substantially ignore ministry needs of Empty Nest households. I knew that Jack’s relationship with Sheila was the second marriage for both of them. However, I did not know the details and the timing.
When I jokingly shared with Jack the old adage about married life beginning again when the last child leaves home and the dog dies, and then added that couples have to figure out at that point why and how they still love one another, Jack said, “My marriage fell apart the day the dog died. My wife and I had so long related to one another through our children and then in the last year or so of our marriage through our beloved dog, that once we had to look each other in the face every day and relate directly, I realized I was no longer in love with that person.”
In light of these life situations, what is the role of congregations with Empty Nest couples?
I say this realizing I have not even mentioned single parent households, those without children, and a host of other ways to define households in this stage of life. They too have unique needs.