Spirituality, Faith and Aging

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As church organist for 70 years at her small community church on the rolling plains of western Kansas, my late grandma enjoyed the camaraderie found when embracing her religion on a regular basis. With spirituality and faith as a regular part of her emotional diet, she seemed to enjoy a more vibrant, engaging and fulfilling life.

That being said, however, she also knew when to raise her arm a bit as she sat at the organ around 11:55 each Sunday morning, tap on her watch face, circle her aging index finger in the air and remind the preacher it was time to wrap it up so they could beat the other churches letting out at noon to lunch! Her spiritual mindset extended itself beyond the four walls of her church and became a strong platform for her overall wellness and sense of well-being. It was, in a sense, her village.

For many people, spirituality is and can be a life-affirming foundation upon which to stand. Across the ages, people have longed for a sense of understanding and knowing of something greater than themselves. Whether religion-based, nature-based or philosophy-based, drawing strength from spirituality can reap a host of benefits, emotionally, mentally and physically.

Studies have suggested people over the age of 68 tend to be more religiously or spiritually involved than the rest of the population. Perhaps this comes from finding peace within one’s self or from discovering a happier and more meaningful life experience. Whatever the case, spirituality can offer a sense of comfort and encouragement as seniors begin to explore the bigger questions in life that focus on purpose and meaning.

More than just a guidebook or roadmap of sorts as we navigate this so-called life journey, spirituality can be a key wellness tool as we age. From a mental health perspective, seniors who live with a spiritual mindset tend to have a more robust mental disposition. Research has even shown that individuals suffering from dementia can expect a slowing down of cognitive decline when they adhere to religious or spiritual practices. For some, spirituality may even stabilize cognitive disorders.

For seniors who tend to isolate themselves and live in a state of loneliness and despair, spirituality offers an avenue to expand their social network and create close-knit relationships with others of like mind. This then fosters a sense of community that is both comforting and beneficial, especially to seniors who have disabilities. This gives them a social circle upon which to lean and ask for help and advice.

Disorientation and lack of organization are often issues affecting older adults. As one day bleeds into the next, it is easy to sink into the dull routine of life. As a result, one may start to lose his or her bearings and even wonder what day of the week it is. When faith and spirituality are brought into focus, they can alleviate that sense of timelessness and make time more meaningful and intentional. For example, a commitment to attending regularly scheduled services at your place of worship can provide a reference point for the rest of the week, as well as give seniors the chance to socialize with others. These opportunities to engage with others on a social level reduces the risk of loneliness or depression and can also positively affect one’s physical health, potentially reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular problems, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers.

The simple experience of faith or spirituality can also become an exciting and stimulating factor in one’s life. Consider the music, prayers and other forms of entertainment associated within a worship setting. This provides seniors with much-needed social engagement and entertainment.

The bonds formed with others while embracing a spiritual or faith-filled life can also be most comforting when facing challenging times. Many seniors will most likely experience illness or loss of a loved one or a spouse at some point in their lives. Faith can provide the necessary support system needed to endure such difficult times.

Most certainly, spirituality is a significant tool when it comes to facing one’s own mortality. It’s no secret there is a finish line for us all. As the social circles of seniors begin to shrink because friends and family die, it may strengthen the overall angst they have about death and dying. As a result, depression can take hold, diminishing one’s morale and hastening mental exhaustion and stress. Through an attachment to spirituality and faith, these experiences can be minimized. Spirituality can help one see the bigger picture of life and her place within it. When someone has something in which to believe, hope and support can be found. As one approaches the final afternoon of life, spirituality can broaden the view of the bigger picture in life and provide continued meaning and purpose.■

Sources: eldercarealliance.org and specializedcaremanagement.com.