United Church Homes’ Parker Center Celebrates Five Years of Ministry

The Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, founding executive director

By Catherine West for United Church Homes. Reprinted with permission from Spirit Magazine, Spring 2022.

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the establishment of an important donor-sponsored initiative of United Church Homes (UCH): the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging (RFPCAA). The center’s primary goal is to transform how society views aging through engagement, education and advocacy, aligning closely with UCH’s mission to transform aging by building a culture of community, wholeness and peace.

Named for Ruth Frost Parker, who served as the inspiration for many UCH initiatives, the center is led by the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, vice president of engagement for UCH. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ for more than three decades, Long-Higgins is a tireless advocate for older adults. She joined UCH in 2013 and was named as the RFPCAA founding executive director in 2017. The success of the Parker Center and our growing accomplishments lead UCH to recently expand Long-Higgins’ role to vice president of engagement, bringing her expertise in engagement on the national scene to the executive table.

The Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging strives to champion the gifts older adults contribute to society, confront and eliminate ageism, grow an understanding of the many facets of the aging journey and facilitate partnerships with other organizations seeking to enhance  the quality of life for older adults. The center also provides education and other resources on aging for religious, community and healthcare professionals who support older adults. “We live in a society with a youth-focused culture,” explained Long- Higgins. “There is an inherent bias against the aging process. Ageism and making assumptions of one’s abilities based on age, is far too prevalent.”

“Our intent is to foster connections by promoting conversation and building community to enhance the experience and understanding of aging abundantly,” she continued. “Our outreach extends to older adults, professionals, academics and students, clergy and religious leaders and organizations.”

A pre-pandemic Parker Center symposium from 2018.

Long-Higgins is passionate about the concept that as we age, we cultivate wisdom. This cultivation involves deep listening and learning, while reflecting on life experiences. She said that we have internalized our culture’s messages, which suggest that aging itself is something to ignore, deny, cover up or cure. We don’t have to hold on to those messages when we discover that despite the challenges aging presents, there are other ways to engage in the world with purpose and meaning, she said.

Today, humans are functioning at higher levels for longer periods of time with chronic illnesses controlled through medication, and surgeries like knee and hip replacements allowing older adults to remain active longer, giving them more time to make a difference in the world. Long-Higgins strives to help individuals and organizations better understand the many facets of aging, surprisingly noting that the first, second and third most creative decades of one’s life are 60 to 70, 70 to 80, and 50 to 60, respectively.

“Individuals who have a positive outlook about aging generally live about seven years longer than those with negative perceptions,” she said. “And people who continue to work past age 65, whose work gives their lives purpose, tend to live longer. Meaningful purpose is a key ingredient of quality of life.”

In the Parker Center’s mission to transform how society thinks about aging, it has expanded to offer a variety of resources including the Another Day Older Conversation Guide — designed for virtual or in-person group discussions, aimed at sparking conversation about ageism and challenging individuals to reframe attitudes toward aging. Darla Metz, chaplain at UCH’s Fairhaven Community, described the program as enlightening.

“When I attended the seminar, I was very enlightened on ageism and how the  words and phrases we use as we minister to our more mature parishioners can have  a negative outlook,” she said. “Though perhaps not intentional, certain phrases can be hurtful to those we love and minister to. I am now able to be more conscientious of what it is I want to say and how to phrase so it is heard in a much more appropriate and uplifting manner.”

Some of the center’s programs  are designed specifically for elders, including the Art of Aging Podcast, which explores topics and experiences relevant to older adults. The podcast offer ideas, information and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. It stems from a partnership with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellow, Eric Johnson.

Enliven features a series of online courses for older adults that create community and conversation around spiritual life, encouraging individuals to learn, grow and share together. Dale, a participant in the Qigong sessions, said, “The course touches my heart and soul. I’m at peace and God’s presence is strong. It’s a reminder in this violent world that love always wins.”

Another participant, the Rev. Dr. Janet Ross said, “I came into the Qi Gong class completely new to the practice. I have learned more than I would have imagined, including the power of slowing down, listening and moving as my body seeks to move.”

Annual symposiums hosted by the Parker Center bring together nationally recognized speakers, experts on aging and an interdisciplinary audience of older adults, students, professionals and community members.

In addition to partnering with groups to design and co-create programs, The Parker Center offers presentations and workshops on a range of aging topics, including Living Well in Later Life, Spirituality and Aging, and Age-Friendly Congregations.

The Parker Center’s first five years have been busy, productive and impressive in its accomplishments. In 2018, it was honored to receive the Social Impact Award from LeadingAge Ohio for its symposiums, and in 2019, it received the Partner of the Year Award from the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging for co-presenting the LGBT Horizons of Aging Summit.

As Long-Higgins looks back on the center’s beginnings and ahead to the future, Ruth Frost Parker’s words are front of mind: “There is still so much work to be done.”

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