More Seniors Religious, Living Longer
At 87, Margaret continues to attend church every Sunday and Wednesday and engage in prayer every day. Having faith in God and belief that there is a higher purpose in life sustains her through the difficult times of aging.
Margaret is not alone. Although religious affiliation has decreased over the years in the U.S. general population, it has increased among older adults. People age 70+ are more religiously affiliated (92 percent) than younger people age 18–29 (74 percent) (Pew, 2008).
The reasons are many: As adults advance in age and face the reality of death, questions naturally arise as to the meaning of their lives and what happens next; they seek religious support and spiritual fellowship that can help them navigate through these important issues.
Longevity Tied to Religion
At the same time, many studies are showing that adults who are religious and/or spiritual live longer than those who have no belief in a higher power. Increased longevity can be traced to a number of known factors that reduce stress and thus contribute to good health: belonging to a group or community and believing that your life has meaning. One theory posits that reduced cardiovascular risk, possibly related to lifestyle or other cardioprotective effects of religious behavior, increases longevity among healthy, religious persons.
The social networks formed by religious communities can help people live longer. Members often provide support and encouragement for fellow practitioners who face serious issues such as hospitalization, chronic illness and death of a spouse. Certain religious strictures may outlaw risky alcohol or drug use. The social networks formed by religious communities contribute to a sense of well-being and help people live longer. At the same time, many spiritual practices emphasize prayer or meditation that can reduce stress.
Many studies have found a connection between religion/spirituality and longevity (see below).
How to Find, Deepen Spirituality
Although the concept of spirituality and religion spans different cultures, religions and centuries, a common theme is the search for answers to questions about the meaning of life and death, our purpose here, God and the universe and our connection to others. Different people approach these big questions in different ways—from organized religion to less traditional and perhaps more personalized methods. (Suggestions below from “Seniors and Spirituality,” Caring Right at Home.)
Those who are part of a church or other religious community can use the church’s resources such as attending worship regularly. If you have given up driving, many religious organizations have volunteers who can offer rides. Many retirement communities also provide transportation to nearby places of worship; others provide worship opportunities within the facility. If you desire help with spiritual matters, contact your minister, priest, rabbi, or other religious leader.
Others who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious also have several resources. Spirituality is a popular topic these days, and your local bookstore or public library will carry a variety of titles that approach spiritual reality from many perspectives. Find groups in your area that reflect your own belief systems.
For those who are homebound or don’t have time to participate in religious or spiritual activities, there’s the electronic alternative. Religious organizations offer spiritual nurturing through radio, television and Internet. Television evangelists, religious talk shows and Internet chat rooms that focus on spirituality draw thousands of spiritual seekers. (However, beware of so-called religious organizations that prey on vulnerable individuals, promising spiritual benefits but bombarding them with increasingly urgent pleas for money.)
How does one define spirituality or being religious, besides going to church every week or meditating? Charles Puchta, a Certified Senior Advisor®, equates spirituality and religion with caring. As founder of Aging America Resources in Cincinnati, his mission is to equip, empower and encourage church staff and lay leaders to help support and address the needs of adult children taking on the role of family caregiver and older members of their congregations who are encountering challenges due to health and aging changes.
His main focus is to encourage compassionate care, often just by listening to people’s concerns and offering support and encouragement. For caregivers who want to help loved ones but lack the confidence to carry it out, his organization offers guidelines, education resources and spiritual guidance to help care partners more consistently and purposefully turn good intentions into meaningful interactions.
Puchta also accepts referral from churches. For example, he recently talked to one woman who was struggling with how to best care for her father, who was nearing the end of his life. He listened to her as she shared her concerns and challenges, and advised her of some of the risks and rewards associated with each of the possibilities. Their conversation helped her approach her dad with confidence and talk about the issues, and make an informed decision. For her, helping her dad recognize the value of hospice care in his home turned out to be a good solution for everyone.
In another instance, a church approached him about a member in her late 70s who was driving to church, even though her driving skills had deteriorated, and had no active support from family members. Puchta suggested ways the church might offer support and encouragement, and made a few phone calls and found the county agency that would do an assessment of the situation. It turned out the woman could get meals delivered and get driven to appointments, so didn’t need her car. When he identifies issues that are common among churches, he works to develop guidelines and helpful resources which his organization then packages and offers for the benefit of all churches that may be facing similar challenges.
Puchta became interested in aging issues after both his parents went through long bouts of illness and realized that many others faced the same challenges he did in his care giving. Yet everyone was struggling to figure out how to handle the challenges on their own, without any guidance. When he first started his company in 2001, it was aimed at businesses who wanted to better understand and address age related issues their clients were likely to encounter. Since 2006, his organization has been a nonprofit focused on serving churches and addressing care ministry needs. In addition to offering support to people facing unfamiliar challenges, CareMinistry.com offers educational resources, small group studies and series of care guides addressing the issues of aging, caregiving, health and hospital/home visit, end-of-life, and death and after care to help church staff and lay leaders provide appropriate support and encouragement.
Studies link religion and longevity
Investigations of the link between spirituality and religion number over 200, going back as far as 150 years (“Where the Evidence Stands : Spiritually And Longevity,” EnCognitive.com). People with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer and have all been shown to benefit from spirituality.
A Stanford University study that tracked 1,500 individuals over an 80-year period found that women who were engaged in religious activity had an increased life span. Researchers said the cause was that religious women are less likely to smoke, drink or abuse drugs, and are also more socially involved than nonreligious women (“Everything You Know About Longevity Is Wrong,” A Place for Mom ).
Duke University researchers studied the spiritual practices of almost 4,000 adults ages 64 to 101 and found an association between private spiritual activities and longevity (“Spiritual Impact on Health,” Navigating the Aging Process). The research showed that low levels of meditation and prayer significantly predicted death in healthy seniors.
Another Duke University project studied patients with blocked coronary arteries (“Spiritual Impact on Health”). Patients who received both spiritual-related therapies (such as guided imagery, breath control and touch therapy) and standard medical treatment had 30 percent fewer medical complications overall.
A 1999 study (Hummer, Rogers, Nam & Edison) that followed 21,000 adults for nine years concluded that religious involvement prolongs life by about seven years (“Spiritual Impact on Health”). People in the study who did not attend religious services were about four times more likely to die from respiratory disease, diabetes or infectious diseases than those who did attend such services.
In another study of 5,286 people, those who attended religious services weekly or more were 25 percent less likely to die than infrequent attendees (Strawbridge, Cohen, Shema, & Kaplan, 1997, “Spiritual Impact on Health”). People who attended frequently were also more likely to make healthier choices such as quitting smoking, increasing exercising and expanding social contacts.