Spirituality and Aging

Helen Lavretsky


Aging Health. 2010;6(6):749-769. 

In This Article

Spirituality & Aging in Modern Society

Increasing longevity in modern society puts the spiritual needs of older adults at the forefront of societal priorities in providing care for the elderly. Nonetheless, Western society continues to struggle with antiaging attitudes, which tend to ignore the talents and creative contributions of older adults, expressed in the lack of opportunities for either vocational retraining and employment, or community service. Additionally, retirement communities catering to older adults tend to place an emphasis on activities rather than the spirituality of creativity.[6] Historically, the elders of society functioned as transmitters of sacred knowledge and rituals. They established an awareness of the culture and roots that are necessary for the health and growth of the community.[6] With the growing population of older adults, the role of an elder in the society should be expanded, to enrich and give meaning to lives of its aging citizens.

In the US general population, religious participation has always been prominent, with over 90% of Americans believing in God or a higher power, 90% praying, 67–75% praying daily, 69% being members of a church or synagogue, 60% considering religion to be very important in their lives and 82% acknowledging the need for spiritual growth.[6–9] There is also evidence from research that patients want to be seen and treated as whole people, not as disease states.[1,10] Being a whole person implies having physical, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions. Ignoring any of these aspects can interfere with healing.[9,11] In healthcare systems, many patients want their physicians to integrate religion; over 75% want their physicians to include spiritual issues in their care.[12–14] Yet, frequently, families and healthcare providers of older adults are poorly prepared for integrating spirituality into the consideration of life and healthcare decisions. According to surveyed physicians, lack of time, inadequate training and discomfort in addressing the topics are responsible for the discrepancy.[15,16] Overcoming these barriers toward proper assessment, and understanding and respecting an individual's spirituality can help shape personalized medical care for older adults, and improve health outcomes.

However, research on spirituality struggles to maintain a nonsectarian approach to studying spirituality, owing to the highly heated religious preferences of various authors,[17] which polarize gerontological literature on spirituality, religiosity and aging. Although the concept of spirituality is multifaceted and does not lend itself to an easy definition, further research will depend on the use of stronger and nonambiguous definitions and measures that will unify research efforts and determine success.[5] Atchley addresses this issue explicitly, asserting in his introduction:[17,18]

"I avoid religious language as much as possible because I have found that, although it may be helpful for the ingroup, it often activates a sense of intergroup division and difference."

It seems that finding common grounds in pursuing knowledge about benefits of spirituality is more important for the benefit of the field and the population at large, rather than emphasizing relatively minor differences among religious practices. Spiritual interventions can help relieve psychological distress and fear of death, as well as the stresses of caregiving for loved ones with chronic illnesses in later years. As in all other domains of clinical research, spiritual interventions have limits, and must be applied with caution for both technical and ethical reasons. As scientific knowledge of spirituality expands, so does awareness of the need for further research, including the refinement of methodological procedures, expansion to new topics and extension to international cultures and diverse religions.[5]


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