by Phillip A. Cooley, Ph.D
Do seniors value spirituality more as they age?
Well, anyone who works with people knows how dangerous it is to make generalizations about any particular group.
Yet, research does indicate that seniors value spirituality more as they age.
Spirituality is difficult to describe or define. While deeply related, spirituality is usually viewed as a broader than religion.
The 1971 White House Conference on Aging described spirituality as “the basic value around which all other values are focused.” Spirituality has to do with how one sees oneself in the context of a power greater than oneself and a deep feeling of the interconnectedness with all that is.
So, as seniors age through life, what is it that makes spirituality so important to many senior adults? Again, without generalizing, it does seem that spirituality offers many important opportunities and benefits to seniors so inclined to be open to them.
Of course, a person does not become spiritual just because they get older. There must be at least some degree of openness. Here are just a few of the opportunities and/or benefits that spirituality can offer to seniors.
One benefit of the spiritual maturation process is the opportunity to shift in self-understanding from doing to being. As younger and middle-aged adults, many are focused on production and accomplishments. Making a living. Providing for the family. Moving upward in career and status and wealth.
As we age, we can concentrate more on the interior life. Spiritual connections have a chance to grow and deepen. Seniors who view aging as a spiritual journey, often find that enhancing their relationships with the significant others in their lives becomes a priority—such as their relationship with God, their family, friends and their faith community.
Second, as seniors grow in their spirituality, they have an opportunity to find or to redefine their sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Life can become more inward driven than outward driven. Seniors often change their relationship to time. They focus on the present and are more attentive and patient.
Seniors can also find a greater confidence in their own insight, abilities and wisdom. What others think is not so important anymore. Seniors often find the voice and self-empowerment to speak their truth. They can insist that their preferences and opinions be considered in decisions that affect them directly.
Third, the spiritual journey of aging often leads seniors reminisce and reflect on their lives. This process can be formal or informal, written or oral, public or private. Yet, the process is often a spiritual one.
Life reviews give seniors an opportunity to connect with their heritage. It is a chance to reflect on the mystery of being born into a particular family, of meeting and connecting with certain people. It is a chance to ask the question of how these circumstances have shaped life.
A life review is also a time to come to terms with the people and experiences of our lives and to make peace with it all. Everyone makes mistakes. We make mistakes, and the people around us also make mistakes. A life review also offers us the opportunity finally to forgive ourselves and others and to come to some peace about our past.
For seniors who successfully complete their life reviews, it becomes a way for all of the events of life to make sense. Seniors have an opportunity to resolve old conflicts and put to rest old hurts, to celebrate joys and successes, and to come to believe that their lives do indeed matter.
Fourth, the spiritual journey of aging can also help seniors prepare for death and afterlife (if embraced) and for making plans that go beyond the grave.
Senior adults are always somewhere in the grieving process. The reality of loss is prominent in older life – the loss of loves ones, pets, physical and mental abilities, income. This increasing awareness of loss alone can often lead seniors to explore the spiritual side of life. Seniors have an opportunity to think about what they will leave behind, not just in material possessions, but in terms of love, influence and life lessons.
A healthy spirituality can be, no matter what belief system or religion that a person belongs to, a significant part of the healthy maturing process of life.