Journal of Gerontological Nursing

EDITORIAL 

Spirituality and Aging

Barbara A M Johnson, RN, MN, FNP, CNAA

Abstract

Having experienced childhood in the late 1950s in an Italian Catholic household I was indoctrinated into the Catholic religion from my earliest memories. I believed that a good Christian was compassionate, loving and committed to the improvement of the quality of life of all people, especially the young and the elderly. Being involved with a transcendent relationship to something greater than myself (God, a divine power) I believed it was not only my duty to ask forgiveness and help from this spiritual being but also my salvation from immediate punishment and eventual admission into heaven when I died. Like most people I knew at that time, I inherited my spiritual outlook on life from religious systems which were culturally transmitted through my parents, teachers and priests. We learned to believe that organized religion was responsible for religious consciousness in youth and contributed to the religious life oí the elder who faced life changes and many losses.

Between 1950 and 1970 gerontological research focused on the losses, especially of work roles, accompanying old age and adaptation to these losses. Adaptation became the meaning and measurement of "successful" aging. Consequently changes in religious participation and practices were interpreted either as normal disengagement or as activity indicating successful aging.

When health care and practices related to health, fitness and all things medically geriatric, including mental health, emerged in the 1980s as the center around which gerontological thinking and research revolved, religious involvement then took a back seat. In a similar way, when gerontologists became interested in ethics and humanistic studies, religion and non-religious spirituality were neglected topics in the emerging questions of meaning, values, and the inner experiences of aging persons.

Spirituality comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath of life." In 1988 Elkins and colleagues defined spirituality as a way of being and experiencing that which comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and which is characterized by certain identifiable values in regard to self, others, nature and life. Old age in itself does not give birth to a spirituality which makes the unavoidable decline and discomforts of our final period of life more bearable. Old age may in fact be the touchstone of the spirituality which one has adopted, discovered or elaborated in the adult years.

J. Hatringa Verschure rightly stated in 1987 that self-care with regard to one's outlook on life is as important as other types of self-care. One's spirituality cannot survive or grow without a minimum of social support. Both self-care and social support are prerequisites for the preservation in old age of a spirituality acquired in previous life periods. Therefore, the creation of a social context for individual spiritual growth is imperative and deserves equal attention by caregivers of the aged as does their physical well-being.

Achieving this balance is not an easy task because of the possible value differences between the elderly and their caregivers. The elderly today were socialized and have grown up in historical periods in which traditional spiritual systems had great influence and power. The spirituality of many elderly persons is rooted in this tradition. At the same time, these systems are now losing power because, in general, caregivers belong to a younger generation who frequently live in different less spiritual and more materialistic worlds.

During the 90s we have experienced a resurgence of interest in religious consciousness and spirituality has in fact reemerged among all age groups. The Gallup Organization in 1988 reported an intensified search for meaning in life. In 1990, Naisbitt predicted a worldwide multidenominational religious revival as a "megatrend" for the year 2000. He sees this interest as…

Having experienced childhood in the late 1950s in an Italian Catholic household I was indoctrinated into the Catholic religion from my earliest memories. I believed that a good Christian was compassionate, loving and committed to the improvement of the quality of life of all people, especially the young and the elderly. Being involved with a transcendent relationship to something greater than myself (God, a divine power) I believed it was not only my duty to ask forgiveness and help from this spiritual being but also my salvation from immediate punishment and eventual admission into heaven when I died. Like most people I knew at that time, I inherited my spiritual outlook on life from religious systems which were culturally transmitted through my parents, teachers and priests. We learned to believe that organized religion was responsible for religious consciousness in youth and contributed to the religious life oí the elder who faced life changes and many losses.

Between 1950 and 1970 gerontological research focused on the losses, especially of work roles, accompanying old age and adaptation to these losses. Adaptation became the meaning and measurement of "successful" aging. Consequently changes in religious participation and practices were interpreted either as normal disengagement or as activity indicating successful aging.

When health care and practices related to health, fitness and all things medically geriatric, including mental health, emerged in the 1980s as the center around which gerontological thinking and research revolved, religious involvement then took a back seat. In a similar way, when gerontologists became interested in ethics and humanistic studies, religion and non-religious spirituality were neglected topics in the emerging questions of meaning, values, and the inner experiences of aging persons.

Spirituality comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath of life." In 1988 Elkins and colleagues defined spirituality as a way of being and experiencing that which comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and which is characterized by certain identifiable values in regard to self, others, nature and life. Old age in itself does not give birth to a spirituality which makes the unavoidable decline and discomforts of our final period of life more bearable. Old age may in fact be the touchstone of the spirituality which one has adopted, discovered or elaborated in the adult years.

J. Hatringa Verschure rightly stated in 1987 that self-care with regard to one's outlook on life is as important as other types of self-care. One's spirituality cannot survive or grow without a minimum of social support. Both self-care and social support are prerequisites for the preservation in old age of a spirituality acquired in previous life periods. Therefore, the creation of a social context for individual spiritual growth is imperative and deserves equal attention by caregivers of the aged as does their physical well-being.

Achieving this balance is not an easy task because of the possible value differences between the elderly and their caregivers. The elderly today were socialized and have grown up in historical periods in which traditional spiritual systems had great influence and power. The spirituality of many elderly persons is rooted in this tradition. At the same time, these systems are now losing power because, in general, caregivers belong to a younger generation who frequently live in different less spiritual and more materialistic worlds.

During the 90s we have experienced a resurgence of interest in religious consciousness and spirituality has in fact reemerged among all age groups. The Gallup Organization in 1988 reported an intensified search for meaning in life. In 1990, Naisbitt predicted a worldwide multidenominational religious revival as a "megatrend" for the year 2000. He sees this interest as "a rejection of materialism and what is perceived to be the shallowness of modern life and accompanied by an intensified search for meaningful relationships arising out of loneliness." He finds that Americans are rediscovering each other and joining together in groups seeking help with problems that include spiritual dimensions. These groups, some of which are identified as "cults" have come to the attention of the news media when they engage in death vows such as the Jimmy Jones' followers in Guyana, The Branch Davidians of Waco, and the recent Heaven's Gate members in San Diego who left their "earthly containers" to allow their spirits to be free. The revival of interest in spirituality coincides with the aging of the baby boomers and interestingly, reports indicate that many are returning to traditional religious beliefs. I have witnessed this phenomenon myself among certain of my contemporaries.

The whole process of aging for many older adults has been aptly described as a "spiritual journey." What is it that characterizes the journey as spiritual? This is the question that continues to be asked, even of elders who claim to be non-religious in any formal sense. Sherman's 1991 studies show that a number of older persons experience life as a spiritual journey, as revealed through their late life reminiscence. These studies also indicate that reminiscing in old age is correlated with selfesteem, high morale, and ego integrity. Their retrospective life narratives point to a journey of self from earlier physical, social and material attachments through a process of self -discovery and selfunderstanding eventually leading to a view of self as "process." This is a sharp contrast to the more common conception of self as being "finished" in old age. Thus, from this perspective the self is an ongoing process rather than an end product. In conclusion it is also worth noting that Erikson (1982) identified the task of the last stage of the life cycle, as the achievement of egointegrity over despair in old age. By actively supporting spiritual care for older adults nursing can effectively assist them in achieving this task.

REFERENCES

  • Elkins, D.N., Hedstrom, L.J., Hughes, L.L., Leaf, J. A., & Saunders, C. (1988). Toward a humanistic-phenomenological spirituality: Definition, description and measurement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28, 5-18.
  • Erikson, E. (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Gallup, G. (1988). The 1990'sDecade of the people's religion? Emerjington DS. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Religious Research Center, 20(7).
  • Hattinga Verschure, J. (1987). Zelfredzame Ouderen (Independent elderly). Lochern: De Tijdstroom.
  • Naisbitt, J. & Aburdene, D. (1990). Megatrends 2000. New York: William Morrow.
  • Sherman, E. (1991). Reminiscence and the self in old age. New York: Springer.

10.3928/0098-9134-19970701-07

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