Spirituality and Aging

Helen Lavretsky


Aging Health. 2010;6(6):749-769. 

In This Article

Definitions of Spirituality: Spirituality versus Religiosity

The definitions of spirituality have been changing over time, and are increasingly considered a construct related to mental and physical health. Despite centuries of debate, there is little consensus on the meanings and definitions of spirituality and religion. Hill and Pargament suggest that spirituality can be understood as a search for the sacred, or a process of self-discovery in relation to the sacred.[39] Many writers emphasize a search for a meaning to life as a central aspect of spirituality.[38,40–42] Traditionally, spirituality was used to describe the deeply religious person, but it has now expanded to include the religious seeker, the seeker of wellbeing and happiness and the completely secular person. The definitions of religion generally include an organized system of beliefs, practices, rituals and symbols, designed to facilitate closeness to the sacred and transcendent, and to foster religious communities. Spirituality encompasses religion but spreads beyond to promote an understanding of the meaning of life, and an individual's relationship to the transcendent.

Individuals involved in new-age spirituality frequently proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. In this context, spirituality is the human awareness of a relationship or connection that goes beyond sensory perceptions. This relationship is perceived by each individual, and is an expanded or heightened knowledge beyond or outside of his or her personal being. Spirituality was eloquently defined by Holmes as "a human capacity for relationship with that which 'transcends sense phenomena'".[43] A person perceives it as a heightened or expanded consciousness that is independent of one's efforts and that deepens one's awareness of self, others and the world.

In the landmark Spiritual Wellbeing Section of the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, the definition of spirituality is centered around people's inner resources, especially their ultimate concern for the basic value around which all other values are focused. The central philosophy of life; whether religious, antireligious or nonreligious, guides a person's conduct to the supernatural and nonmaterial dimensions of human nature.[44] The National Interfaith Coalition on Aging was organized in 1971 and defined spiritual wellbeing as the affirmation of life in a relationship with God, self, community and environment that nurtures and celebrates wholeness.[45] The spiritual permeates and gives meaning to all life. The term 'spiritual wellbeing' indicates wholeness by contrast to fragmentation and isolation.[46] The evidence of spiritual wellbeing includes positive self-concepts, unselfish giving, moral character, beliefs in the all-encompassing God and personal transcendence, for example.

In a study by Zinnbauer and colleagues, of 346 individuals who were asked to define religiousness and spirituality, religiousness included both the personal beliefs in God and organizational practices, such as church attendance, as well as higher levels of authoritarianism, orthodoxy, parental religious attendance and self-righteousness.[47,48] Spirituality is most often described in experiential terms, such as faith in God or a higher power, or integrating one's values and beliefs with behavior in daily life. It is associated with mystical experiences and new-age beliefs and practices. Although religiousness and spirituality describe different concepts, they are significantly correlated. Most people consider themselves to be both religious and spiritual. Their self-rated religiousness and spirituality are associated with frequency of prayer, church attendance, religious orthodoxy and an intrinsic religiosity that uses religion as a guide for everyday decisions.[6] Although 93% identify themselves as spiritual, some rate themselves high on spirituality and low on religion, while others are moderate on both.[6] Most believers approach the sacred through the personal, subjective and experiential path of spirituality, even though they differ on whether they should include organizational or institutional beliefs and practices in their self-identity. It is the responsibility of mental health professionals and general practitioners to understand what spirituality means to each individual in order to provide complete holistic care of their psychological and spiritual needs.


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