We in America have an ingrained image of old people (especially women) sitting piously in church in the same pew where they have sat for years. Is that picture in our minds based on some kind of truth? Recent research says it is.
The Pew Research Center, which is a nonpartisan fact think tank, published a study in the Pew Forum that stated that people do, indeed, tend to become more religious the older they get. Forty-eight percent of Americans aged 65+ attend church regularly (at least twice a month), while Millennials weighed in at only 27%. That gap widens even more when you ask them about the relative importance of spirituality in their lives. Sixty-percent of older people said spirituality was extremely important, but only 40% of Millennials agreed.
This increase in importance during the declining years may relate to fears and insecurity about death, according to some developmental psychologists and theologians. Especially when the chosen religion offers immortality, as Christianity does, aging may seem less final and actually closer to a better life after death.
Is religion beneficial to the elderly?
People who are religious tend to be healthier in general that non-religious, and they often attribute that to their belief system. In fact, there are several areas in which religion does seem to benefit the older people in the congregation.
- Mental health benefits
A positive and hopeful attitude about life and illness often leads to better health outcomes. Feeling as though life has purpose and meaning results in better health behaviors and more positive relationships with friends and family. Coping with illness is easier when attitudes are positive (such as when life appears to have meaning). Depression and anxiety percentages are much lower in people who have deep religious affiliations.
- Social benefits
In many cases, the church becomes the hub of the social sphere for older people. The community of like-minded people means that there are always those around who ask about health and family concerns, which leads to earlier intervention of problems and issues that might otherwise become life-threatening if unnoticed. When others around them offer caring attention, elders are less likely to become self-neglectful.
Fourteen spiritual needs of elders
Elders need to have a place where they can have these needs met. If you are a caretaker, it is your responsibility to make sure that the elder under your care has the opportunity to attend a church or meeting where others can support them in these needs. If the caretaker shares these concerns, so much the better.
- A need for meaning, purpose, and hope
- A need to transcend circumstances
- A need for continuity
- A need for support in dealing with loss
- A need for validation and support of religious behaviors
- A need to engage in religious behaviors
- A need for personal dignity and sense of worthiness
- A need for unconditional love
- A need to express anger and doubt
- A need to feel that God in on their side
- A need to love and serve others
- A need to be thankful
- A need to forgive and be forgiven
- A need to prepare for death and dying
Source: Harold G. Koenig, Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years, New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 1994
What you can do to support spiritual needs of your elderly
It is a sad fact that elderly people often encounter obstacles to spiritual support systems. Failing health may make them too frail to attend religious activities with other believers. Their friends may die or move away, attributing to the loss of connections to their faith community. With the trend for churches to focus on a younger crowd, older people may feel alienated. Hearing loss makes it difficult to hear sermons and sight problems make it difficult to read their old Bible. Like believers of all ages, seniors need the fellowship and encouragement of other believers.
So what can you do? As a caregiver to an elder, you are blessed with the opportunity to minister the love of God to your senior. Making sure you get older people to church and to small groups of people the same age, and being sure it is a priority to you as well as to them, is very important. Letting them know that you are not too busy to take them to gatherings (and even funerals) lets them know that they are not a burden to you.
Helping your senior obtain a hearing aid and new glasses when needed is important to their overall well-being. Imagine not being able to clearly see what’s going on around you and living in a muffled world! Bibles are available in large print for aging eyes and make lovely gifts. However, do not wait for a special day to bestow such a present. Make each day your elder is with you a day to celebrate.
If the church you’re attending is too young for your senior, consider finding another one with an older congregation that your senior can attend. If you do not want to change churches, then perhaps you can take him or her at a different time or on a different day.
Recognizing that your elder is probably spiritually wiser than you are and asking for advice or insight is one of the most encouraging and uplifting thing you can do for him or her.
Remember the words of the psalmist who said, Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:18)
Taking care of you, too.
Your own spirituality is equally as important. Daily Bible reading and praying is an opening for the Holy Spirit to minister to you and to grow you into the minister that you can be to your senior.