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Study: Role of Churches in Age-Friendly Cities

 

In just 15 years, two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities, a quarter of them will be over 60.

According to the World Health Organization, creating "age-friendly" communities is one of the best ways to foster the well-being of older people.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have found that churches play a significant role in the development of "age-friendly" cities. Yet their role is largely ignored.

The qualitative study used data obtained from six ethnically diverse focus groups involving 45 participants, and interviews with 15 homebound adults in one large U.S. metropolitan city. Participants were aged between 55 and 92.

The new research found that churches foster well-being, among older adults, through:

  • social activities
  • volunteer opportunities, and
  • providing health information.

The findings appeared online in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging on April 4, 2016.

1. Social connectedness

For a start, older adults touted home visits from the church pastor. As one homebound participant explained, "My husband has been diagnosed with Parkinson's, so our church's pastors are coming out once a month to visit with us and bring communion to us because he's not able to get to church anymore … That's a real plus."

Others highlighted the positive effect of reaching out to other church members through prayer. "I have a list of 35 people I send scriptures to every morning," said one African American woman, "and when I get to church, they just, you know, they all come up and hug me."

The new data showed churches provide opportunities to foster interpersonal ties and friendships. This was of particular concern to one woman, who noted older people sometimes feel excluded from the younger community.

In addition, churches offer tangible support for older adults in the wider community through hospital visits and providing comfort in times of bereavement

2. Volunteering

The research findings point to churches as important providers of volunteer opportunities.

Past research suggests volunteer activities enhance the quality of later life and boost psychological well-being. This was also the case for the participants in this study.

As one homebound participant put it, "Yeah, it's a big church…. You know, they have my name on the list. They'll call me. And if I'm having one of my good days, I can go. So I still can."

Another participant, who helps with garage sales and other activities around the church, claimed that volunteer work boosted his spirits: "When I arrived here I was very depressed and now I feel happy. I like to be useful and I like to contribute and participate as much as I can."

3. Information

Significantly, the study found that churches are an important source of information for older adults, especially health information.

Many participants described church-sponsored health seminars on issues such as Alzheimer's disease and other chronic illnesses.

Church-based public health programs can provide opportunities to address health disparities, among older adults

One African American woman described health fairs at her church, where people can get tested twice a year for concerns such as high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Churches play important role

This study sheds light on how churches help older adults negotiate their late years and remain healthy and vital members of the community.

Past studies have shown that religion and spirituality can play an important role in guiding the lives of older adults as well as helping them establish meaning in their lives.

The researchers call for age-friendly community initiatives to more closely examine the value of churches in the lives of older people.