Meatloaf, roasted potatoes and more than a dozen varieties of salad fill a buffet table at St. Peter Parish’s Wednesday lunch. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Meatloaf, roasted potatoes and more than a dozen varieties of salad fill a buffet table at St. Peter Parish’s Wednesday lunch. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
No doubt it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village — or even better a parish — to cheer on a senior.

At St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland, it’s the seniors themselves who shoulder some of that responsibility with their own Wednesday Mass, social lunch (open to all ages) and bingo gatherings.

Pat Mattsen, 90, has been coordinator for 17 years. She’s also president of the widows’ group at her Elks Lodge. “I keep real busy,” she says.

Eight cooks rotate to provide the meals, which cost $3, “just to cover costs,” says Mattsen, with the third Wednesday of the month a potluck.

The diners, whether living in their own homes or in centers, so look forward to the lunches that when foul weather forces a cancelation, Mattsen often receives calls from people saying how disappointed they were.

“It’s what we do on Wednesdays,” says Father Raúl Marquez, pastor. “It’s a great ministry.” Father Marquez is one of eight chefs who take a turn cooking the main dish. His specialty is chicken soup, although his most important contribution is celebrating the Mass that precedes the lunch.

Mattsen and this group — including one cook who is 93 — stand in contrast to what has been called an epidemic of loneliness among seniors.

This is happening as the U.S. population is rapidly aging. By 2030, it’s expected that 71 million U.S. adults will be 65 and older. In Oregon that will amount to one in four residents. Most people want to stay in their own homes, meaning they’ll need help with transportation, home maintenance and meals.

Mattsen suspects St. Peter’s Wednesday lunch may be one of the best meals of the week for some who attend.

The bingo that follows the lunch, with 25 cent cards, is another friendly and fun social event.

All parishes depend on seniors to volunteer for a variety of ministries, and most parishes have ministries specifically to serve seniors. A couple miles west of St. Peter Parish, Holy Family, for instance, has a senior ministry that coordinates personal visits to elderly, both in their own homes and nursing facilities, planning meals and social events, assisting family caregivers and more. Seniors gather the first Wednesdays of the month for food and fellowship, and there’s a Friday senior coffee club after the 8:30 a.m. Mass. Holy Names Sister Mary Ryan has a hand in the coffee get-togethers.

Seniors at both Holy Names and St. Peter parishes are, of course, urbanites — in fact they’re urbanites in Portland, one of 33 cities in 22 nations worldwide that are participating in a project with the World Health Organization to create an age-friendly city.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control have found that seniors in rural areas — 25% of all U.S. seniors — may have tougher going.

Older adults living in rural communities are at a disadvantage in terms of available services, resources, and activities and the social “glue” these provide, Patrick Arbore reported at the 2019 Forum on Aging in Rural Oregon. Arbore is founder and director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco.

Arbore told the professionals gathered at the forum that 12 million Americans older than 65 live alone, and 69% of that group are women.

Arbore defines loneliness as “the subjective experience of distress over not having enough social relationships or not enough contact with people.” He cautions there’s no hard rule for this: It’s possible for a person to be socially isolated but not feel lonely and also for a person to seem to have a large social network and still be isolated.

“Social isolation is a risk factor; connection a protective factor,” Arbore is quoted as saying at the institute’s website.

Mattsen at St. Peter agrees. “Keep busy,” she says. “It’s trouble when somebody doesn’t have contact with anyone.”

The older a person gets, the smaller his or her social network is likely to be. Death takes spouses, siblings and friends, and children may move away.

“That’s me,” says Mattsen. “Anybody who’s been very close to me — they’ve all passed away. I keep busy to keep from depression.”

While health problems can leave a senior homebound, isolated and lonely, loneliness itself can cause health problems. Some researchers, according to Arbore, have concluded that a lack of social relationships are as bad for a person’s health as is smoking, obesity or being sedentary.

Mattsen has seen this happen. “I think sometimes we don’t want to admit we need care,” she says.

That can lead to missed meals, missed doctor’s appointments, and not asking friends and family to come visit and help out.

The seniors at St. Peter watch each other’s backs to guard against that. They go visit the homebound if someone is no longer able to come to the lunch, and many have formed friendships. They call each other and do things together.

They’re following the Mattsen golden rule: Keep busy, busy, busy.