Many Americans opt to or are forced to spend their twilight years in nursing homes, but there’s a paucity of choices for the secular-minded among them.
The number of seniors in nursing homes across the country was approximately 1.16 million, as of July 2022, and there were a little over 15,000 nursing homes last year. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for most, if not all, of the nursing homes in a given community to be religious. Especially in more rural parts of the United States, an individual’s choice of nursing homes within their area may be entirely limited to homes affiliated with a religious organization. To illustrate, we can look at some examples from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s home state of Wisconsin. In Janesville, three of the city’s four nursing homes are religiously affiliated, leaving a single secular option to serve the city’s nearly 66,000 residents, about 11,000 of whom are 65 years or older. The Wisconsin communities of Baraboo, Fountain City, Hazel Green, Hillsboro, Hudson, Kaukauna, Marinette, Mondovi, Mount Calvary, New London, Osseo, Portage, Seymour, Stoughton and Wauwatosa are all places that have only religiously affiliated nursing homes.
The lack of nonreligious nursing homes is a problem for secular seniors. As an example, FFRF recently received a call from one of our members who, sadly, ended up in a religious nursing home because that was the only option.
The dearth of secular nursing homes forces nonreligious seniors into a difficult position. They can forgo the day-to-day care and support that they require in favor of continuing to live in their own homes, free from any unwanted religious influence. Or they can accept life at a religious nursing home that meets their needs at the expense of dealing with the religious nature of the entity. Not to mention that a recent study found religiously affiliated nursing homes are more likely to have severe violations of care standards than secular ones. Researchers concluded that “in religious facilities, the likelihood of whistleblowing by a community member is lower, leaving various types of care-standard violations to fester and worse.” Thus, the shortage of nonreligious nursing homes not only harms seniors in terms of personal conscience and dignity but also places one of our most vulnerable populations at risk for neglect and abuse.
Picture for a moment a senior who requires assisted living services but who doesn’t want to leave the area where they’ve lived, worked and raised their children. Now imagine that this individual is an atheist who has no desire to spend the last years of their life in a Christian nursing home no matter how much the home claims it can adequately serve nonreligious patrons. Here, this individual is faced with the choice of staying in their community — the place they are most familiar with where many of their friends and family likely still reside — while subjected to prayers at meals, crosses on walls, religious PA addresses and other religious intrusions, or leaving their community in order to obtain the services they need in an environment free from sectarian influence. This choice is not one that any senior should be forced to make, whether they’re secular or a member of a minority religious group.
The shortfall of secular service providers extends far beyond nursing homes. Organizations such as homeless shelters, food pantries, substance abuse recovery programs and domestic violence shelters are often religious. The individuals seeking these services are rarely, if ever, in a position to be picky. For those individuals who are in situations that demand immediate action, suggesting that they can spend days, weeks or months attempting to find a secular alternative outside of their community is absurd in its impracticality.
Imagine an individual fleeing an abusive marriage, perhaps with one or two young children in tow, seeking shelter and assistance. Now imagine that they’re an atheist or agnostic or a member of a minority religion. If the only domestic violence service provider in their community is Christian, do you think they legitimately have the option to look elsewhere for assistance in order to avoid the likely possibility of being subjected to a religious ideology that they don’t agree with while attempting to get help? Clearly not. The choice to seek out a secular option is illusory. Secular and minority religion Americans find themselves in these situations all too often, forced to accept assistance from a religious, usually Christian, provider, or relinquish assistance all together.
Individuals and communities must work to support and increase secular nursing homes and other secular service providers by raising awareness of the problem and by advocating to local and state officials for expanded secular options and resources. Secular service providers are vital to preventing religious indoctrination and proselytizing when individuals are in a time of need. The separation of state and church must include secular resources for our nation’s most vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, there is yet another variation on this theme: unconstitutional intrusions of religion at federally financed programs to feed, house or offer daytime recreational options to people with disabilities or senior citizens. FFRF has often received complaints by our members or members of the public eligible to participate in federally funded lunch programs or senior centers or live in subsidized housing complexes where prayers or religious programming regularly occurs. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to accept publicly funded services from a religious organization, please report the situation to FFRF.
Individuals in need — senior or otherwise — shouldn’t have to be forced to compromise their ideals to receive essential services.