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Spirituality & Aging: Why Is It Important?

spirituality aging blakeford photo

How often have you heard or asked the questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?  What does it all mean? My kids are all grown, and I’m retired, now what? How these questions are answered frame the lens in which one’s very existence is viewed. Like an epic novel, our life unfolds chapter by chapter throughout the various seasons of our life. So our spirituality serves as the framework for our core belief system. It seeks to provide answers to these questions. Which in turn, informs our choices, decisions and actions about how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us.

In the next few weeks, we’ll dig deeper into the role of spirituality and its impact on aging. We’ll explore finding purpose in later life, addressing decisions, and telling your life story – all through the framework of spirituality.

As an introduction to the series, let’s examine what spirituality is and why it’s important.

I once went to visit a man who was recovering from surgery. After introducing myself, he replied, “I don’t need a preacher or a sermon today.”  After pausing for a moment, I smiled and said, “Whew! What a relief! I don’t have a sermon prepared.” Through the laughter and conversation that ensued, I learned a little of this man’s story. It was a story of serving in the military during wartime, complicated family relationships, and a variety of religious experiences (both good and bad) that began with the faith tradition in which he was raised and led to where he was at the moment of our conversation. He had mixed feelings about religion and expressed resistance to a “religious” encounter. However, he also expressed a deep sense of spirituality, which helped him cope with his physical condition by giving him a sense of hope, and a means to make sense of his experiences. He very much wanted to discuss how his spirituality played a role in his life story.spirituality and aging blakeford blog photo

Oxford Dictionary defines spirituality as, “The non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.” So spirituality addresses one’s state of being.

Spirituality vs. Religion

One does not need to be religious to be spiritual. Rather, spirituality “Can be both religious and non-religious […] It involves finding meaning and purpose in one’s life and experiences. It encompasses a person’s philosophy of life and world view.” (Cooper & Wintz, 2007)

To better understand the differences in the two terms, it might be helpful to define each of them:

SPIRITUALITY refers to our inner belief system. It is a delicate ‘spirit-to-spirit’ relationship to oneself, others, and the God of one’s understanding.

Everyone is a SPIRITUAL being.

RELIGION refers to the externals of our belief system: church, prayers, traditions, rites, rituals, etc. Not everyone is RELIGIOUS.

Sensitivity to spiritual issues and the inclusion of spiritual care is an essential and necessary component in patient care and family support.

(Cooper & Wintz, 2007)

There is a growing number who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Their life stories often reveal a spiritual journey that may or may not include a particular religion (denomination or faith tradition). Citing a 2004 study, Harold G. Koenig, MD states,  “…about one in five Americans consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.” (Harold G. Koenig, 2013)

Spirituality Matters

It is important to acknowledge spirituality has an integral part of our whole being – mind, body, and spirit. Our spirituality informs how we cope with life transitions, illness and loss. It plays a significant role in medical decisions, like whether or not we have surgery, or choose a particular treatment option. Spirituality informs how we relate to spirituality and aging blakeford blog series photoour family and connect in community. And, it informs how we view the aging process. Do we fear the changes aging brings or do we see aging as a means to share our wisdom with others? Do we see aging as a new and unwritten chapter full of possibilities?  Spirituality seeks to answer some of these questions by giving meaning and purpose to our own life story.

How do you see spirituality’s role in your life as you age?

Next week we will explore ways in which we find purpose as older adults.

Reverend Sherry Perry, serves as staff chaplain with Blakeford at Green Hills to residents, family, and team members. Sherry has a special interest and passion for senior adults. She is focused on supporting the various relationships surrounding senior adults as they navigate this special season of life. She is board certified with both the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Inc. (BCCi) an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains (NAVAC). She received her Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School.

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