In the first-century Christian church, congregations placed great emphasis on "waiting on widow's tables," or caring for the needy elderly.

As more seniors find themselves needing health care they can't afford, the church's role in helping the elderly is resurfacing, say pastors at half a dozen county congregations.

"We're finding that our members are wanting more help from the church, rather than just 'spiritual things,' especially senior adults,"said Norman Hamby, minister of evangelism at the Heritage Church of God, which offers 71 different ministries to its members.

Nowadays, this social agenda includes making sure senior citizens get the information they need about long-term health care. The Heritage church in Severn this week joined a growing number of churches that have invited a health-care analyst to speak to their seniors.

"I try to be a resource for them," said Hamby. "It does add work to you. I try to keep in touch with the Department of Aging and the Social Security Administration."

As the population of seniors grows and the options for health coverage become more complex, the needs of the elderly continue to increase, pastors say. At Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Pasadena, for example, senior citizens make up 60 percent of the 250-membercongregation, said Debi McKenzie, who directs the church's social ministry.

"As a church, we realized long-term health-care is a critical, growing concern for the nation. We want our population of older people to be informed," McKenzie said.

Helen Belka, a long-term health-care specialist, spoke to about 25 senior citizens at Heritage Tuesday. She described a problem seniors frequently encounter: needingto enter a nursing home, only to realize their health coverage won'tpay for it.

In the one-hour educational seminar, Belka discussed long-term health care and why it has become a financial problem for seniors.

One major problem is that because hospital costs are so high, nursing homes are being used as convalescent care facilities. This is troubling, because Medicare covers very little toward convalescent care, Belka said.

"About 99 percent of all persons in nursing homes today are receiving custodial and intermediate care, and Medicare pays nothing toward that. Private health insurance often doesn't pay anything toward it, either. Seniors end up paying out of their pockets, if they don't have private long-term health insurance," she said.

Another church offering a health-care seminar next week, Lakeshore Baptist Church on Mountain Road, recently started a committee to address the needs of senior citizens, said spokeswoman Gloria Kraus.

Care for the old isn't a new tradition within the Christian church,Kraus points out. The first-century church established the principleof the church's responsibility to take care of the elderly, especially widows who did not have families to provide for them.

The prerequisites for receiving care spelled out in Paul's letters to Timothy were stringent: A woman had to be over 60, with a reputation for goodworks. She was to have reared children, shown hospitality to strangers, assisted those in distress and "devoted herself to every good work."

If the senior qualified, the church was then accountable for her emotional and physical needs, including food and shelter.

Margaret Pugh, 68, a member of Emmanuel, praises the church for respondingto the needs of seniors today. "We need to be able to talk things out. "Our society is getting to be more and more confusing, and churches are starting to help us, which is wonderful."

Pastors don't expect the church's growing duties toward seniors to decrease, Hamby says.

"The more churches move toward a mega-church model, expanding programs to help the social and financial needs of parishioners, the bigger the job will be," said the minister.

"But we feel that anything we can do to help our parishioners we should do, whatever it is."

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