Aging with Spirituality: A Review of the Literature
Sherry A. Tattersall
South University Tampa
The intention of this subject is to spread awareness of the impact that religion and spirituality play in the aging process, specifically those over the age of eighty-five. It is becoming more and more acceptable to incorporate a person’s faith in their care, both at home and in a clinical setting. The impact of spirituality and/or religion in terms of how much better a person will age physically, mentally and emotionally is overwhelmingly positive. This wisdom and love of God that is not only gained through years of experiences, good and bad, but also through a deep-rooted faith, is often overlooked and even sadly ignored. The elderly have so much to offer anyone that will take the time to listen, as they have a precious ability to embrace the end of life and a love for the Creator that goes beyond the understanding of most young people. It is only recently that spirituality and the neurobiological effects that it has on the aging in relation to mental and physical health, as well as attitudes about death and dying, have been taken seriously enough to study and implement into care. Faith in God seems to be the key to doing what our mothers always told us to do…age gracefully.
In this day and age, it is acceptable to consider age 85+ years old as elderly, and upon accomplishing the age of 100 years, we win the prestigious title of Centenarian. Due to the baby birth explosion Post WWII, hence the ‘Baby Boomers’, born between the years 1946 and 1964 (U.S. Census Bureau), along with healthier lifestyle, eating habits and advances in science and medicine, more people are living longer. Research has shown that the effects of religious faith and personal spirituality in the elderly are extremely beneficial in understanding the meaning behind death and illness, as well as coping and healing. It makes sense that as we age, we also develop our spiritual capacities, drifting away from the hustle and bustle of work and raising children, making it easier to explore spirituality and participate in religious activities.After all, there is within each one of us, a strong desire to connect with the Holy. Atchley (2008) defines spirituality as, ‘an inner, subjective region of life that revolves around individual experiences of being, transcending the personal self, and connecting with the sacred.’ With the loss, disability, illness, and general physical breakdown of the body in the aging process, it becomes increasingly valuable for us to understand our spirituality, ultimately connecting with our Creator as this is truly where all peace and understanding originate. Spirituality is a way of making sense out of what is happening in the aging process and gives the elderly a sense of peace while grappling with serious issues. Even coping with dementia seems to become a more peaceful experience for the older caretaker.
The Duke Longitudinal Study of Aging found that, although religious satisfaction and attitudes do not change much with aging, the feelings of being useful and happy, as well as personal adjustment, tend to increase. Tornstam (1997) coined the term, ‘gerotranscendence’, referring to how the older, mature adult experiences conception of time, an awareness of death and mortality, which may result in an increased desire to explore individual spirituality. Tornstam reports the following comments made by an 86-year old woman in relation to this philosophy: “You go back to childhood almost daily. It comes without reflection. I talked to a good friend about this. We both go back to the town where we grew up (in our thoughts). Childhood means much more than one thinks; I go back to it all the time.” Ironically, the older adult’s childhood may seem nearer at age eighty-five than at age forty-five.
Throughout life, we store away life experiences through language and perception as memory in the brain. Some of these experiences could be ‘spiritual’ depending on the individual’s actual capacity to be enchanted in wonder. For example, looking at Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon could be a spiritual experience if the individual has developed the capacity to perceive the absolute beauty of nature. The wonder or enchantment is not inherent in the falls or the canyon, but in each of us as human beings. Throughout life, spirituality is developed spontaneously, subconsciously, and even purposely as we get into our later years and really begin to accept our mortality.
We do this by nurturing our spiritual being with reading spiritual material, attending church, listening to and watching spiritual programs, spending more time in prayer, and desiring to be around spiritual or religious people. The elderly generally develop a “let be” attitude about life’s journey, and know that developing spiritually cannot be forced. It is enjoyable and educational to listen to the wisdom expressed by the elderly when they speak or write about their spiritual journey. They teach us that wisdom and spirituality is a living process.
Aging successfully through spirituality really sparked interest in the 1990’s by the McArthur Research Network. Their studies showed that religious participation in the elderly is just as beneficial as diet, exercise, mental stimulation and being connected socially. A better quality of life in spiritually-connected elderly can also be linked to the decreased use of tobacco products, abuse of drugs and alcohol, longer marriages and of course their supportive networks that all bring about a sense of peace and tranquility. There are many large-scale community studies that assess religion and spirituality as it coincides with the health and well-being of elderly men and women. The Established Populations for Epidemiological Studies of the Elderly (Lavretsky, 2010) did a study on approximately 20,000 U. S. adults, revealing that involvement in religion can prolong a life by seven years on the average. In another study, Comstock’s and Partridge’s analysis of 91,000 people in Maryland that attended church showed a decrease in the prevalence of cirrhosis, heart disease, and suicide.A great number of studies reveal a direct correlation in commitment to one’s spiritual self with lower rates of hypertension, cancer pain and stroke. Studies also prove that religion or spirituality is also associated with decreased anxiety, stress, strong relationships and better overall mental, physical and emotional health.
All of these types of studies have proven similar results in all parts of the world and in all races, cultures and religions. The benefits of spirituality for the aging adult may be a fairly new concept in that it has really only been studied in the past twenty to thirty years, however, it is being taken seriously in geriatric care by practitioners everywhere. In many clinics, religion and spirituality are now taken seriously as a part of an individual’s history when it comes to assisting elderly or seriously ill patients in order to help them cope, and even heal. Of course, the subject of religion may be a touchy one for some; therefore practitioners know that they must approach this area cautiously. One way to do this is by asking open-ended questions, such as, ‘is faith (religion, spirituality) important to you in this illness’; ‘has faith been important to you at other times in your life’; ‘do you have someone to talk to about religious matters’; and ‘would you like to discuss religious matters with someone?’ The sense of well-being through spirituality and religion equally runs through White, Mexican, and African-Americans as studies have demonstrated, because inherently, people of faith, no matter what the race or culture, internalize peace and tranquility about aging and illness, leading to better self-esteem, attitudes and lower rates of depression and anxiety. “Evidence suggests that meditation, prayer, and other religious and spiritual practices may have significant effects on the aging brain – positive effects that may help improve memory and cognition, mood, and overall mental health” (Newberg, 2011).
Gerascophobia, the fear of aging, is common in people that have a difficult time experiencing birthdays, and that do everything within their power to ‘stop the clock’. We see as people age that they experience disengagement and loss like never before, such as losing professional identities, incomes, and seeing friends and/or family die or move away. This is a ‘time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy in to a way of life; a time for transcending the senses to find, and dwell with, the reality that underlies this natural world’ (Smith, 1991). As Pope Benedict said to the residents of a nursing home in Rome, Italy in 2012, “It is beautiful to be elderly!…We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sadness! We received the gift of long life. On our face there must always be the joy of feeling ourselves loved by God, never sadness.”