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Spiritual care for the elderly is an important part of the aging process. Bereavement and depression can become a sad fact of life for seniors. Religion, faith, and spirituality can help improve physical and emotional health, as well as enhance overall quality of life.

Faith, Spirituality, Religion, and Aging

As people age, faith, spirituality, and religion can become important parts of life.

While these terms bring similar thoughts to mind, they do not have to be intertwined to give meaning to the lives of seniors. Faith can be linked with trust. Spirituality can be related to connection and religion can mean a belief in a higher power.

Faith and Aging

In a recent survey, senior living referral company Seniorly found that seniors ranked faith as high as health when asked about the most important factors in aging.

Faith can be viewed as having a sense of trust, whether it be in a higher power or in the universe. The benefits of faith in seniors can stem from trusting that things will be okay, even if this has not been proven.

Spirituality and Aging

Spirituality is often referred to as “the breath of life.” It can describe a feeling people get from things that are enjoyable to them — a connected feeling that can be found in spending time with family, being in nature, painting or the arts, and anything that causes people to “light up.”

This changes over time and spiritual activities for seniors may be different than for younger people. For example, walking in nature may no longer be possible as people age but connections might be made in different places, such as birdwatching, for example.

Religion and Aging

For most people, religion means a belief in a higher power. Religion can also be described as a commitment to a common purpose. About 70% of Americans identify as Christian and another 6% as non-Christian, which includes Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or another faith.

Sharing religion can be a powerful community for the aging population, as it offers support when people age and face new joys and sorrows.

Religion and Health Among Older Adults

For many seniors, spiritual connection, faith, and being part of a religious community can bring a sense of purpose. These things can also help prevent loneliness, feelings of isolation, and depression.

While there are many benefits to be found through faith, spirituality, and religion, they may also have a negative impact. As with most everything, finding a balance is important.

Psychological Benefits

Many elderly people say that religion is the most important factor in their lives when faced with health problems and life stresses commonly associated with aging.

Studies have shown that seniors who turn to religion as a coping mechanism are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

Religion can also offer:

  • Hopeful attitudes toward life and illness that can lead to better health outcomes
  • A sense of purpose and meaning, which can have positive effects on both health consciousness and personal relationships
  • Greater ability to handle disability and illness

Health-Promoting Practices

Seniors who are actively involved in religious communities have been found to better maintain their health and physical functioning. Some religious groups even encourage behaviors with proven health benefits, such as not smoking and not drinking too much alcohol.

The benefits of faith in the aging population are also seen with a higher percentage of seniors reporting as being in good health.

Social Benefits

Religious communities often encourage and foster support networks amongst congregants. Social contact in the elderly has been proven to help with depression and isolation.

It also helps with earlier disease detection, as community members often ask older members questions about their health. The benefits to this are that older people may be more likely to follow treatment schedules and less likely to neglect themselves.

Caregiver Benefits

Having faith in religion can also be a great benefit to caregivers. The stresses of caregiving in illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and terminal cancer are well known. Faith-based support groups can offer social contact that helps caregivers cope with overwhelming stress.

Those who use religion to cope with caregiving are found to have:

  • Better relationships with those they care for
  • Lower levels of depression
  • Decreased likelihood of becoming overtaken by their caregiving role

Possible Harmful Effects

While the benefits of religious devotion in the aging population are many, there is also some risk of harmful effects. Spiritual care for the elderly should be monitored on occasion to ensure no harm is being done.

Extreme beliefs can lead seniors to have negative feelings, especially when their physical, emotional, or financial state does not allow for full obedience.

These negative feelings can cause:

  • Excessive guilt
  • Inflexibility
  • Anxiety

If left unaddressed, these feelings can turn into delusions and religious preoccupations, especially in seniors with: 

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychoses

There are also some religions that discourage congregants to seek mental and physical health care, suggesting that they instead turn to prayer. This may stop seniors from seeking life-saving therapies such as treatment of severe infections, insulin therapy, or blood transfusions.

Some of the more rigid religious groups may even aim to isolate elderly congregants from their family members and friends who do not practice the same religion.

Living Options

There are living options for seniors no matter what their religious beliefs are. Since religion can often be a large part of a person’s identity, it is important to factor personal beliefs into deciding on a living situation.

Senior communities can be a place for the elderly to maintain this part of their lives, and they can offer great health benefits.

The benefits of faith in seniors are taken into account in many of today’s communities. Many places offer spiritual activities for seniors and give people the ability to maintain their spiritual traditions.

Residents can take advantage of convenient onsite worship, which can be tremendous support during such a major transition as leaving one’s home.

Faith-based care facilities include:

  • Catholic Senior Living
  • Christian Senior Care
  • Jewish Senior Living
  • Protestant Senior Living
  • Senior Living for People of All Faiths

The National Institute on Aging offers valuable information for those choosing long-term care.

Faith-Based Support Groups for Seniors

Many churches and religious groups offer faith-based support to seniors. These can not only include spiritual services but also practical assistance as well.

Some options include:

  • Social events and trips
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Meal delivery programs
  • Ministry to shut-ins
  • Counseling
  • Caregiver support groups
  • Adult daycare
  • Transportation
  • Parish nurses