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Posted: April 26, 2008

Spirituality and the Elderly

Finding the 'Spirit' of Better Health as We Age

Cal Johnson’s prognosis was grim. His doctor at University of Cincinnati hospital told him to expect eight to 10 months of slow, painful recovery and physical therapy following surgery on his lower back. Cal expressed his faith that God would help him through the process and later surprised his doctor by participating in a community walk-a-thon less than five months later.

How did Cal’s belief in God impact his recovery? Was there a connection? Researchers aren’t sure. Some credit the well-documented power of the mind to heal ourselves when spurred by a positive, optimistic outlook. Others identify the recuperative power of hope and determination they see in many patients. Still others suggest that having faith in God or some form of supernatural hereafter connects patients with a hidden source of strength we don’t always perceive or understand.

Medical professionals have long appreciated the connection between their patients’ spirituality and their improved physical health. A number of doctors say patients with a vibrant spiritual faith stay healthier, heal faster and experience less pain and other symptoms during illnesses. For example, epidemiologist Dr. Jeff Levin reports in his book God, Faith and Health that older adults who identified themselves as “religious” in his study had fewer health problems and functioned better than those who did not.

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Matching Physical and Spiritual Needs

Caregivers are usually very conscientious about making sure their loved ones’ physical needs, medications and daily quality-of-life care needs are well-met. But in the sometimes-challenging pace of providing consistent or constant care, we’re apt to forget the physical, mental and psychological benefits our aging loved ones can experience when we help them cultivate a healthy spirituality as well.

Helping loved ones cultivate meaningful spirituality may seem like a daunting, unfamiliar caregiving process, but it doesn’t have to be -- nor does it have to follow a certain formula for what “spirituality” means.

Quite often, developing and maintaining a healthy spirituality is a journey that’s unique to each individual or family. For some, it may mean regularly attending a church or temple, along with reading spiritual literature and praying. For others, it may mean listening to or watching religious programming at home. For still others, singing, meditating, listening to music or journaling may all be elements of a satisfying spirituality.

Each individual is unique and may find immense strength and comfort in a variety of “unusual” places, so helping our loved ones discover those places doesn’t necessarily mean attending a specific church or following a “traditional” path.

Where Faith Matters Most

Although healthy spirituality seems to support healthier healing and better physical health generally, there are three other areas of our loved ones’ lives where spiritual faith seems to matter most.

First, most loved ones who exercise some regular spirituality find a greater sense of hope, contentment and well-being in their day-to-day quality of life. The physical difficulties and lifestyle changes that so often accompany aging can have a depressing effect on mental health. But personal faith, or a sense of connection with God, helps loved ones accept and adjust to these changes as a natural part of life’s design.

Further, faith also gives “common,” day-to-day living a greater sense of meaning and purpose. By helping our elderly place their experiences in a more spiritual context, the resulting healthy spirituality often frees them from focusing on difficulties and enables them to enjoy life’s daily rhythms more fully.

A second area where faith matters most as we all age is in providing and encouraging greater opportunities for social involvement and personal relationships. Being regularly involved in a local faith community helps seniors remain included in life outside the home. Houses of worship are often not only sources of spiritual inspiration, but also the center of many long-term friendships and relationships. A faith that’s shared and enjoyed with others not only sustains our spiritual well-being, but also satisfies the need we all feel to be included, accepted and valued by others.

Even when loved ones can’t go out to participate in public services, their need for community connection can be met with regular visits from clergy and other members of their faith family.

A final aspect of our loved ones’ lives where faith matters most comes as they face the prospect of terminal illness and death.

The fear and uncertainty that usually accompanies death can feel both isolating and overwhelming. But a healthy personal faith in God can impart a restful, even optimistic sense of peace and assurance in the face of life’s final transition. And feeling assured that life does extend beyond death helps many loved ones to emotionally prepare themselves for their journey as they give final gifts and say last goodbyes to family and friends.

How Caregivers Can Help

As caregivers, we can feel awkward or uneasy addressing spirituality or religious faith with loved ones. We worry that the subject will be uncomfortable, or that broaching it may be perceived as an unwelcome intrusion into a private area of life. But frequently, our loved ones welcome the opportunity to talk with someone about spirituality and their desire to feel peace or spiritual comfort in this phase of their lives.

So how can we, as caregivers, support our loved ones’ spirituality without intruding or imposing our views or ideas?

First, we can simply invite our loved ones to express their spiritual interests or personal faith, and then listen attentively without passing judgment. While our loved ones’ beliefs or practices may not always match our own, we can encourage their unique perspective and celebrate the areas that we share in common.

Second, we can gently offer elderly family opportunities to cultivate their spiritual well-being in ways that compliment their personal faith and interests. Subscribing to large-print devotional magazines (many of which are available at no charge), arranging transportation, and inviting the elderly to share in our own faith communities are all ways in which we can make ourselves available to encourage our loved ones’ spirituality.

Finally, we must allow our loved ones to lead the process of spiritual discovery and respect their desire to pursue a healthy spirituality in their own way, at their own pace, or even not at all. In the end, our desire always should be to support their journey in whatever ways they feel most comfortable with. And in this, we can all succeed.

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Mike Andrews is a former church pastor and currently works as a business consultant and writer. He lives in Mansfield, Ohio and can be reached at oholymike@hotmail.com.

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