Spirituality and Aging

Spirituality and Aging

Said the monk, “All these mountains and rivers and the earth and stars – Where do they come from?” Said the master: “Where does your question come from?” Look inside!

Anthony DeMello (1982)

Look around most congregations at worship and witness the courage and persistence of the aged men and women who arrive with walkers and oxygen tanks, often transported by other older people less encumbered by health problems. Sharing pews with noisy babies, children with crayons, bored teens, and distracted parents, they sing and pray, sit in silence, listen to scripture and sermons, rise and sit as they are able, share the Eucharist if Christian, and exit in friendly conversation with fellow travelers. In the humans, prayers, scripture readings, and sermons, they hear of love and forgiveness, gratitude and hope, despair and lamentation, anger, fear, and awe. In no other community do persons of so many different backgrounds and ages meet regularly to consider the human condition and turn to the sacred for an enduring sense of meaning and purpose in life.

McFadden, 2003

Introduction

In the last few decades, gerontologists have become increasingly aware of the importance of spirituality to the well0-being of seniors. Spirituality is difficult to define and describe. It is a concept that is highly personal, often private, and hard to put into works. For most, spirituality is an inward experience.

Gerontologists often define spiritualitywith a description that came from the 1971 White House Conference on Aging: “the basic value around which all other values are focused, the central philosophy of life – whether religious, antireligious, or nonreligious – which guides a person’s conduct, the supernatural and nonmaterial dimensions of human nature” (Moberg, 1971). While this definition mentions familiar terms and concepts that most people would agree relate to spirituality, currently there is no real consensus on a standardized meaning of the term.

Three common components are included in most definitions of spirituality (Bouchard, 1997):

  • An understanding of self that is defined in the context of relationships to others
  • An understanding of a creation story and symbols of faith
  • An understanding of greater power that is outside of the self, you intimately connected with the sense of self

Key Elements of Spirituality

  • Not formal, structured, or organized
  • Non-denominational, above and beyond denominational
  • Inclusive, embracing everyone
  • The ultimate source and provider of meaning and purpose in life
  • The awe we feel in the presence of the transcendent
  • The deep feeling of interconnectedness with all that is
  • Inner peace and calmness
  • An inexhaustible source of faith

(Mitroff & Denton, 1999)

Death and the Spiritual Quest

Seniors are always somewhere in the grief process. For most, their experience is dominated by losses such as the deaths of loved ones, decreases in physical functioning, and reductions in income. The accumulation of such losses – and the increasing awareness of their own deaths – can lead seniors to an exploration of spiritual issues.

The reason God has engineered the spectacular increase in life expectancy in the last 100 years is because the world is so desperately in need of wisdom that God created elders.

Emma L. Benignus, 2003

Importance of Spirituality to Seniors

For many, spirituality is key to a vital old age. In fact, aging is often referred to as a spiritual journey (Moberg, 2001). IN 2000 Lou Harris and Associates conducted a study of more than 3,000 adults for the National Council on the Aging. The purpose of the study was to examine the experience of aging. Sixty-seven percent of seniors in the study said that having a rich spiritual life contributes meaning to life. The majority of baby boomers in the study also said that, when “thinking about their later years,” having a rich spiritual life will be very important (NCOA, 2002).

Many scientists who study spirituality and aging have concluded that spirituality increases with age. However, it is also important to acknowledge that other prominent researchers disagree with this premise (Moberg, 2001).

The Process of Spiritual Maturation

I had an evening of storytelling in my home where I invited some senior women to come and share life stories with some listeners. During the evening I asked a question about how their image of God had changed throughout the years. Herminie, an eighty-year-old woman originally from New York stated, “When I was young, I was scared to death of God. I felt like I was being watched and was filled with fear. But as I grew older I knew that was a bunch of crap, God is all about love.”

I said, “Now wait a minute, Herminie. How did you get from fearing God to finding God as a loving God?”

Herminie responded simply, “That was easy. Every time I loved my husband and children I felt God’s presence. When I wasn’t loving them God was far from me. It’s all about loving…that is where you will not find God.” (As retold by Norm Bouchard, CSA Faculty, 2004)

Herminie had experienced a maturation of her faith. She allowed her life experiences to shape her very ideas about God. Her reflections, in turn, permeated her daily life and how she chose to live it. Many seniors experience this kind of maturing as they have more time and interest in addressing the spiritual aspects of their lives.

Finding Meaning and Purpose of Life

As seniors develop spiritually, they often exhibit certain characteristics. They place an emphatic focus on connecting with others, finding meaning and purpose in life, and holding personal power to influence outcomes. They change their relationship to time; become more attentive, patient, and present; and often given themselves permission to speak their truth even when it is unpopular. And perceptions held by others become less important, as does conforming to cultural norms and expectations.

Shift from Doing to Being

For many seniors, the focus on production and accomplishments they held throughout young adulthood and middle age gives way in later years to a concentration on the interior life. Emphasis on making spiritual connections grows.

While seniors perceive aging as a spiritual journey, they raise the priority of enhancing their relationships with God, loved ones, faith communities, and communities of residence (Blanchi, 1997).

As seniors mature spiritually, many experience a shift from doing to being.

Characteristics of Seniors during the Maturation Process

Older adults who focus on spiritual issues may:

  • Take more time to reflect on the meaning of events;
  • Feel despair over the injustices and evils in the world;
  • Long to make peace with imminent death and their beliefs about death;
  • Struggle to understand why so many good people suffer;
  • Seek a comprehensive and more satisfying personal philosophy;
  • Yearn for solitude and silence;
  • Seek to communicate unspoken love to others;
  • Recognize the need for a greater sense of community;
  • Question beliefs about death and the afterlife.

Spirituality and Religion

For many, religion is a route to spirituality. Both religion and spirituality can bring meaning to life.

Scientists participating in a conference on spirituality and health concluded that both religion and spirituality have a “sacred core” that involves “feeling, thought, experiences, and behaviors that arise from a search for the sacred” (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001). The conference participants distinguished religion from spirituality by two criteria: People use religion for nonsacred goals such as socialization, and religion employs rituals or prescribed behaviors.

The Monk and the Woman

Two Buddhist monks, on their way to the monastery, found an exceedingly beautiful woman at the river bank. Like them, she wished to cross the river, but the water was too high. So one of the monks lifted her onto his back and carried her across. His fellow monk was thoroughly scandalized. For two full hours he berated him on his negligence in keeping the Holy Rule: Had he forgotten he was a monk? How did he dare touch a woman? And more, actually carry her across the river? And what would people say? Had he not brought their Holy Religion into disrepute?

The offending monk listened to the never-ending sermon. Finally he broke in with, “Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?” (DeMello, 1982).

The monk who helped the woman as more concerned with the spiritual aspects of his faith while the offended monk was clearly more interested in matters of religion.

Other distinction can be made between spirituality and religion. Religion is organized, formal, prescriptive, and community-related. Spirituality is more personal and not prescriptive. Spirituality is felt. Religion is taught. Religions include doctrines. Spirituality is emotional.

Characteristics Distinguishing Religion and Spirituality

Religion

Spirituality

Community-focused

Individualistic

Observable, measurable, objective

Less visible and measurable, more subjective

Formal, orthodox, organized

Less formal, less orthodox, less sympathetic

Behavior-oriented, outward practices

Emotion-oriented, inward-directed

Authoritarian in terms of behaviors

Not authoritarian, little accountability

Doctrine separating good from evil

Unifying, not doctrine-oriented

Spirituality and religion are separate but related concepts. Spirituality is the broader of the two. In contrast to spirituality or religious participation, religiosity is devoutness or excessive devotion to religion.

For many older adults, spirituality and participation in a religious organization may overlap. For example, sometimes seniors do not participate in organized religious activities due to physical limitations, yet they maintain a rich, private spiritual life through activities such as prayer and personal devotions. This is particularly true of seniors older than age 85.

Positive and Negative Views of Religion and Spirituality

According to Mitroff and Denton (1999), a person can have four different orientations toward religion and spirituality:

  1. A positive view of religion and spirituality. Religion and spirituality are essentially the same thing, although spirituality is experienced and deepened only through religion.
  2. A positive view of religion and a negative view of spirituality. All energies are focused on the religious life, through rituals and practices of a given faith. The principal goal is be a member of a tightly bound, shared community.
  3. A negative view of religion and a positive view of spirituality. Religion is perceived as organized, closed-minded, and intolerant, while spirituality is perceived as open0minded, tolerant and universal.
  4. A negative view of both religion and spirituality. Religion and spirituality have nothing to do with a modern secular world.

Importance of Religion to Seniors

Like spirituality, religion plays an important role in the lives of most seniors. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that 73 percent of seniors identify religion as being very important to them. (Gallup Organization, 2002). The below chart shows a comparison between age groups for this measure. About half of adults ages 18 to 29 say that religion is very important to them, compared to almost three-quarters of seniors.

How Important Is Religion In Your Life?

 

18-29 Years

30-49 Years

50-64 Years

65+ Years

Very Important

51 %

60 %

62 %

73 %

Fairly Important

31 %

28 %

25 %

22 %

Not Very Important

17 %

12 %

13 %

4 %

Don’t Know/Confused

1 %

-

1 %

1 %

Source: Gallup Organization, 2002. Data purchased by SCSA.

Seniors’ Religious Affiliation in the United States

The 2002 survey by the Gallup Group also found that 70 percent of American seniors are Protestant Christians. Another 20 percent are Catholic, 2 percent are Mormon, and 2 percent are Jewish. There is a dramatic contrast between the percentage of older and younger age groups who are Protestant and Catholic. Thirty-nine percent of adults ages 18 to 29 are Protestant and 29 percentage Catholic. Twenty percent say that they are Christian but not Protestant or Catholic.

Religious Preference of Americans by Age Group

 

18-29 Years

30-49 Years

50-64 Years

65+ Years

Protestant

39 %

50 %

60 %

70 %

Roman Catholic

29 %

29 %

24 %

20 %

Orthodox Churches

2 %

-

1 %

-

Mormon

4 %

2 %

2 %

2 %

Other Christian

20 %

7 %

2 %

-

Jewish

2 %

1 %

1 %

2 %

Muslim

1 %

-

-

-

Other Non-Christian

-

-

-

-

Atheist

-

-

-

-

Agnostic

1 %

-

1 %

-

Other

1 %

1 %

2 %

-

Note: Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.

Source: Gallup Organization, 2002. Data purchased by SCSA.

Theories on the Development of Spirituality and Religious Participation in Later Life

Scholars have developed theories about why and how people become spiritual as they grow older. We briefly describe three theories below.

Age-Period-Cohort Issue

David Moberg, a pioneer in age-related religious research, describes the challenge of growing older as the “age-period-cohort issue” (1990). His paradigm includes:

  • Aging effects – related to the process of growing older
  • Period effects – related to events of a specific time in history
  • Cohort effects – related to common characteristics of a specific generation of people born in the same interval o time

Moberg says that the accumulated evidence on period and cohort effects is not enough to explain increased religiosity among seniors. The explanation that stands up best is that “the aging process itself contributes to a deepening of concern in the later years, especially on the private, non-organizational level” (Moberg, 1990).

Theory of Gerotranscendence

Lars Tornstam offers a theory of “gerotranscendence” that argues for a distinctive path toward age-connected spirituality. Tornstam postulates that seniors are predisposed to consider the spiritual dimension, which includes a preoccupation with the interconnection among generations, the relation between life and death, and the mystery of life (1999). Tornstam’s model is similar to James Fowler’s 1981 model of the development of faith, which proposes that people progress through developmental stages from simple faith to spirituality.

Spirituality, Age and Negative Life Events

Paul Wink speculates that there could be an interaction effect among spirituality, age, and negative life events, and that seniors utilize spirituality to cope with life’s adversities. Seniors get more involved in spirituality and religion for a wide assortment of practical reasons. With retirement, they have more time to consider their interior lives. For seniors who are uncertain about life after death and the role of salvation, focusing on greater spiritual connection helps them to “hedge their bets.” As people age, losses accumulate. Thus, many seniors need the interior strength that comes from spiritual connection to support the death of loved ones, sickness, poverty, isolation, and demoralization (Wink, 1999).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us