The Mental and Physical Aspects of Spirituality for the Elderly
The relationship of spirituality to aging is not a new idea. Society, as a whole, has been thinking about spirituality and its effects on aging since the first recording of religious history. The relationship is examined by scientists, medical doctors, spiritual healers, and individuals alike. The effects of spirituality on the elderly population have been shown to be positive, long lasting, and generally beneficial to all who are preparing for their final days.
The first step to examining the effects of spirituality and the elderly is to determine what spirituality really means. By definition, spirituality is "sensitivity or attachment to religious values" or "concerned with religious values." So the concept is obviously related to religion, of a sort. Religion is defined as "relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity." With those three definitions in mind, spirituality encompasses the ideas that an ultimate being exists (whether that is God, the self, or the earth), or that the soul exists, and that the person's beliefs are altered and affected by their values and faith in that deity.
With that definition, we can begin to examine the effects of spirituality on the elderly population. It is important to note that spirituality often begins in the later part of life. As we age, we begin to lose more and more, both physically and mentally, and yet we begin to gain some sense of spirit. Spiritual traditions settle this inconsistency of loss (physical, social, or psychological) as the actual occurrence for spiritual growth.
Most religions include references in texts that point to late life as an honorable phase that presents distinct opportunities for spiritual growth, from the Sheikh in Islam to the rebbe in Hasidic Judaism. Each religion describes a set of practices that leads to eventual spiritualism.
On top of the ancient ideas that spirituality comes with age, there are practical reasons for spirituality in the elderly. As people age, the concept of death becomes more and more real. In the face of that, many in the elderly population begin to seek solace in the ideas of spirituality and religion, in order to attempt to find comfort from their own inevitable demise. In many spiritual faiths, death is seen not as an end, but as a beginning.
For example, in the Jewish faith, death is a part of the natural cycle. Death, like life, has meaning and is part of God's plan. Although life is valued above all else, death is an acceptable natural part of that life. In addition, the Jewish faith has a firm belief in an afterlife, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded. Another example is that of the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith is in Jesus Christ as a savior. Through the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Catholics are able to face the reality of death with a serenity that the spirituality holds. In both of these examples, death is not feared, but exalted, leading to a more positive outlook on aging.
This process, studies have shown, is actually prolonging lives, an effect that cannot be ignored. Research findings show us that older people can age faster and die sooner by feeling bad about their age. The August 2002 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology declared that people who said they had positive views about aging lived an average 7.6 years longer than those with negative ideas. Since a sense of spirituality creates a positive outlook, those with this sense may live longer.
Another positive effect of spirituality on aging is that of staying well in tragedy. As people age, they lose people they love. Grief puts persons at risk for physical and mental health disorders and consequently increases the likelihood they will become ill themselves. According to a study done at Yale University, published in the August issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, elderly people whose spiritual beliefs help them cope with loss seem to stay healthier than those who don't look to spiritual forces for support.
Another positive effect of spirituality is that of a better mental and physical state as person's age. New research which explores the lives of older people found a clear association between level of belief, personal meaning and well-being. A 15-year study of aging and Alzheimer's disease in nuns suggests a positive emotional state at an early age may help ward off disease. By looking at early mental function, the study directors could predict with 85 to 90% accurateness which nuns in the study would show brain damage typical with Alzheimer's 60 years later.
Aside from the obvious mental effects, there are physical effects of spirituality on the elderly as well. According to a 12-year study funded by the National Institute on Aging, attendance at religious services may actually improve physical health. The extensive study sampled 2,812 people age 65 and over from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and other religious backgrounds from 1982 to 1989. The study found that elderly people who participated in religious services have a lower frequency of unhealthy behaviors. They exercise more, are less likely to smoke or drink heavily, and eat healthier. Another study examined cigarette smoking and religious activities in a 6-year study of 3,968 persons age 65 or older in North Carolina. Both the likelihood of current smoking and total number of years smoked were inversely connected to attendance at religious service. If persons both attended religious services at least weekly and read the Bible or prayed at least daily, they were 990% less likely to smoke
In addition, attendance at religious services was a good predictor of practical ability in later life. The researchers compared a person's functional ability in 1982 to the changes that occurred during each follow-up year for six years. They found that people who had high health levels in 1982 and who continued to go to services were able to continue higher levels of health through 1988.
Spirituality in the elderly also speeds healing. In one recent study, patients who sought a chaplain while in the hospital had an average 2 day shorter post-operative hospitalization. In another study, randomized patients either received chaplain intervention for 15 minutes/day per patient or 7 minutes a day. The longer stays resulted in a reduction of RN calls by one third, and a reduction in pain medication by one third. In still another study, heart surgery patients who scored higher on personal religion tests upon admission had lengths of stay 20% less than those with lower than average scores.
Thirty-three elderly women hospitalized with hip fracture were studied, and those with higher rates of spirituality had less depression and longer walking distances at the time of hospital release.
Even mental illness has been shown to be improved in elderly patients who have spirituality. In one study, 128 older schizophrenics and their families were studied, and it was found that the patients were less likely to be re-hospitalized if their families encouraged them to continue worship while they were in the hospital. A survey of 577 hospitalized medically ill patients age 55 or over examined the association between religious coping and mental and physical health. Of the 21 religious coping behaviors, 16 were significantly related to greater psychological growth, 15 were related to greater cooperativeness, and 16 were related to greater spiritual growth. In another study, depressed patients who had a strong basic spiritual faith recovered over 70% faster from depression than those with less strong faith.
Spirituality also helps in the prevention of illness in the elderly. The relationship between spiritual activities and blood pressure was examined in 6-year study of 4,000 older adults. Among subjects who attended spiritual services once a week or more and prayed once a day or more, the probability of diastolic hypertension was 40% lower than among those who attended services and prayed less often. Findings also suggest that persons who attend church regularly have stronger immune systems than less frequent attendees. It was reported that frequent religious attendance in 1986, 1989, and 1992 predicted lower plasma interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels in a sample of 1,718 older adults.
Spirituality is a key element to the mental and physical health of the elderly. From illness prevention and recuperation to a better sense of well being, spirituality can help heal the body. In addition, spirituality eases the fear of death in almost all religions, allowing humans to grow old without fear and anxiety. Spirituality helps those who are grieving cope, and helps those without a significant social structure heal. It also aids in the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy mind and body. By looking at the vast results from hundreds of studies concerning the relationship between spirituality and the elderly, we can see strong association between the two. If we ignore the spirit, the body will too fall. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Prayer is not an…
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