Although researchers have neglected the study of spirituality and religion in the medical, social, and behavioral sciences until recently, older adults consistently identify faith in God as making a profound difference in their lives.
In a recent study, sociologist Susan Eisenhandler of the University of Connecticut interviewed 46 adults over 60 years of age, including 15 long-term care residents from a variety of denominations, occupations, economic status and educational levels. Her conclusion: "Religion remains a bulwark of meaning in later life."
The study appeared in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work (Vol. 45,1/2, 2005).
Older adults refer to their faith when they speak about issues of identity, struggles with questions of meaning, and their hopes for resiliency during times of loss and transition.
Take James, 74, for example, a resident of a large long-term care facility, who enjoys informal chats with two staff members (members of a religious order) about books – secular and religious – that each one has read. James says he appreciates the mental challenge of the informal group talks about the larger issues that flow from the books. The group also shares suggestions for further reading.
"Reading has helped me deepen my understanding of God and life," James says.
Patrick, 86, welcomes the opportunity to say the rosary weekly as part of a small group. "Even when some days there is only [a visiting pastoral care team member] and myself, she insists on staying and praying with me," he says.
As Eisenhandler notes, "Praying was a source of strength; participants were fortified intangibly but in a manner that helped them to work through difficult situations. So the act of praying may be treated as a conversation that encourages active coping."
Anne, 77, member of an independent unit in a long-term care residence, is a lifelong spiritual seeker, and a student of different religions and different traditions. Anne says, "It is not the religion itself that was important, it was the realization that after all, we were one."
Perhaps surprisingly, Eisenhandler found that older adults may value the social, religious networks they experience in faith communities, even more than faith in God itself.
But even these networks may not be a given today, as one woman discovered.
"When I moved to the nursing home that [daily formal religious participation] all stopped and so I’m kind of lost when I think of religion," says Rebecca "Now I’ve let it slip by. There was nothing I could do about it."