Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spirituality and Older Adults: Ask, Don’t Tell

Photo by Chineka
Because older adults often have to manage a number of losses as they age, they have the challenge and opportunity to turn to religion and to spirituality as methods for managing these losses.

Rates of depression among older adults are higher than many other age groups for this reason. At any age, a person would struggle with job loss, death of a spouse, or health troubles. But for the older adult, these types of losses often come in rapid succession, making it more difficult to manage.

However, older adults are not without resources. Some have well maintained support networks through family members and friends. Others have great self-awareness for what types of activities work as mood lifters, such as exercise or participating in hobbies, volunteer work or even paid work if they still have some type of employment. Many also have long-standing relationships with a community of faith and with practices that increase their spirituality.

Those who socialize with older adults might ask older adults to articulate their spiritual knowledge.

I witnessed someone doing the opposite one day when I visited a friend at a skilled nursing center. A volunteer--who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties—was delivering a sermon to a room full of residents who had gathered in the dining room. She was asking them a series of rhetorical questions: “Do you feel forgotten? Are you sad because your health is so poor? Do you feel as though you have no self-worth?” The mood darkened with each question. She followed up with a call for them to turn to Jesus.

No one was responding. Instead, they all had their heads down.

What I wanted to do was stand up and ask her, “Could you instead ask them to share their hard-won spiritual wisdom? These residents have been cultivating a relationship with the divine for 30, 40 or 50 years longer than you. They could probably deliver a very powerful sermon on faith through trials if you would just ask them.”

I am sure she had good motives for volunteering, but she could benefit by seeking some training by a professional gerontologist or from a professional clergy whose parishioners are older adults. As the baby boomers are now starting to turn 65, many religious organizations are increasing programming for this demographic with an emphasis on drawing on their strengths and not just meeting their needs.

The field of gerontology makes repeated reminders that older adults should not be defined by their struggles and losses. They have spent decades developing in areas such as education, vocation, volunteer work, understanding of various life stages, and spiritual growth.

All people need to be engaged in meaningful work. I used to chuckle at this age-related joke: “You know you’re old when you know all the answers but nobody asks you the questions.” Now I can better see that there is veiled wisdom in that statement. If I am ever tempted to believe that I am serving an older adult, I quickly discover the opposite is true.

As I socialize with those who are a generation above me, I learn a great deal about how to live a more effective life—if I just bother to ask the question and take the time to listen.

Do you socialize regularly with someone a generation or two above you? Do you talk with them about your struggles? Do you see them as someone who possesses significant strengths?

For related information, see these posts:

Don't Be a Boy Scout: Preserving the Independence of Older Adults
Gender Differences in Midlife / Late Life Spirituality
Talking with Older Adults: Serving as a Witness
Late Adulthood: A Time to Bless

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