Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Women's Voices on Spirituality & Aging

Photo by Alberto G.
Yesterday I scoured through the list of books I've read in the last five years, pulling together a subset of books on spirituality and aging.

After I finished the list of 8 books that fit squarely in that category, I was astonished to see only one female author among them.

Where are the women writing about spirituality and aging?

Women's Voices on Caregiving

I do agree with the French feminists that women tend to write more grounded works and tend to write from the body and from personal experience.  It follows that spirituality would be grounded in daily tasks of relating to other people in the domestic sphere.

In other words, we find the divine by serving one another through human interaction more than by solitary meditations.

A number of the dementia memoirs I've read have applied theology in them, particularly Debra Shouse's Love in the Land of Dementia (2013).

I have read a number of book on aging by women caregivers. Many of these are more psychological than spiritual in their approach. For example,  more than half of the books I've read about dementia are written by women. In addition, I am noting how well-established women authors known for writing on vastly different topics are now writing about caregiving.

One of the most overtly spiritual books about physical caregiving was co-written by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley:  Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and  Communications of the Dying. (1997).

Women's Voices and Transcending the Aging Female Body

So if women pay more attention to the body, where are the books about transcending the aging body? Bookstores are flooded with books that offer secrets to looking younger.  But there are also a handful of books emerging by women about embracing the aging body and celebrating it. I have yet to read some of the available books on the topic.

I am interested in Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism (2001) by Cynthia Rich and Barbara MacDonald. (2001).  Also, I'd like to get my hands on Women Growing Older in Anti-Aging Culture (2010) by Laura Hurd Clark.

I have read some poetry by May Sarton that probably fits the same category--transcending the aging body through a spiritual framework.  I recommend her collection Coming Into Eighty, published in 1994 when she was 82.  She's written other collections as an older adult, but I haven't read them yet. I imagine there are other female poets who have addressed the topic of the aging body from a spiritual framework.

Clearly, I have some homework to do.  Feel free to add to my stack.  Please share any recommendations you might have for women writing about a spiritual approach to aging.

Women's Voices and Devotional Literature

However, there are some women who write about the spirituality and aging in more philosophical ways.  That's where I really need to do some homework.  Yes, there are many women who write about spirituality, but who is doing so specifically from the framework of advanced age?

Once again, I'm going to explore the book list at Changing Aging.  I am drawing such a blank in this area. And many of the writers I think about off the top of my head are writing as nuns without children and grandchildren. Not to invalidate their viewpoint, but I think many women ground their spiritual insights from their relationships to others.  But are grandmothers too busy doing hands-on caregiving to write?

It wakes me ask, "What if Ram Dass had a grandmother?" (to contort Virginia Woolf's query). What would she have to tell those a generation or two below her about spiritual awareness in late life?

Until I find the wise woman's devotional literature, I think I need to ask more mature women about their spiritual stores of knowledge.


Books on Aging
Embracing My Age
Gender Differences in Midlife / Late Life Spirituality


  1. The best book I ever read about a woman suffering from dementia was by a man--Elegy for Iris about Iris Murdoch by her husband John Bayley. Not spiritual
    I think it must be very hard to be spiritual when you know you're losing so many abilities
    To be a caregiver means being in the present. If you have the time to talk you go where the person you're caring for wants to go and that's generally memories of more pleasant times.
    I never even met an elderly nun who wanted to talk about anything but people in her life, the most pleasant memories--I worked for a Catholic facility though I'm not--it wasn't that they felt uncomfortable talking to me. I'm pretty easy to talk to and know how to "go with the memory" whether it be false or real.
    My mother didn't have dementia but lost her sight and that led to many horrible things. I asked her once why she seemed to have lost any will to believe "because I have to focus on today. Because the older I get the more I realize life is all we have."
    A very religious woman asked me to spend what we all knew would be her last night with her. She had begun by disliking me, refusing to acknowledge my position but called me a "social secretary." Gradually our relationship changed.
    That night she told me how she wished she had known me when she was young (I was in my 40's) and did an entire life review inserting me in with and as her "best friend." It was an amazing experience. But spiritual--no--and she was a devout Catholic.
    You have a sentence about many women grounding their spiritual insights from relationships with others. A nun can have many meaningful relationships. I can too and I have no children.
    Younger grandmothers generally do hands on caregiving. Older ones generally don't. Maybe the whole belief in a God or higher power is a luxury that an older person--reviewing their life and making peace with the past and present can't afford or doesn't want to. Just a thought. I knew the woman I spent the night with had a h/o being very religious but she had no desire to go to Mass. She was polite to the priest when he came to visit. Not so polite to the nun. The nun had a great sense of humor and told me she was used to that--so I know this lack of caring about spirituality isn't uncommon.
    I wanted to ask the woman why but I sensed she couldn't answer or the answer would have been too painful so I only asked questions that led from one thing she had been talking about to another. I don't think her being childless played into this--she hungered for human connections
    My mother had children, a grandchild and more friends than a person could imagine. She loved people and it showed at her funeral. The rabbi was used to our family's large funerals and weddings--there were over 500 people at my father's ten years before. He did want to believe in something at the end--and both my parents had sudden deaths so he didn't know he was going to die. But the rabbi freaked at my mother's funeral as it was a multi-cultural, multi-racial celebration of life.
    Sorry for the length. My mother would have been 99 on 10/10 and died on 10/14 thirteen years ago so this is a very reflective time of year for me. I was adopted so....I am more spiritual than my parents were but probably only because I'm comparitively young and healthy--and have lost too many people too early in life.

  2. Pia: Thank you for your comment. I agree that spirituality is complex and very personal. I enjoy talking with people about this topic. And I respect the diversity of experience that people have across the spectrum. Thank you for sharing your observation about older adults and a waning of spirituality. I have read some research that older adults grow less concerned with theology and doctrine and tend to simplify their views to real basics. But your observation that they go even further to agnostic views is interesting. I value personal narratives and see them as a form of truth. I don't think that evidence-based scientific studies with large data sets is the only way to learn about aging (or any topic for that matter). All my beset to you as you remember your mother during this time of year. Your mother's funeral celebration sounds like an absolute delightful event. (I am sorry that the rabbi didn't embrace the opportunity.) Take care!