For many older people, faith and religion are important aspects of their spirituality – allowing the person to hold onto real meaning in their life, have confidence in their personhood, and providing hope for the future.
It is interesting that the science of gerontology now recognises that spirituality can help older people hold onto the positives of old age, adjust and cope with the stresses of life and recover from illness and bereavement.
It is suggested that faith and spirituality enable older people to manage the complexities of getting old, accept the unanswered questions of life, and reduce the fear of the future.
As life goes on, there is more to learn from, more to reflect upon, and more to dwell on. Those living in the fourth age may have had more experiences; more joys, disappointments, pleasures, sadness, successes, regrets, and failures. As people grow older, they become more spiritual – more aware of life and perhaps more aware of death (Woodward 2008).
Reflection can help us see ourselves as part of the universe – not its centre; accept things which at one time were painful or difficult; help us to let go of things which really are not important. Chittisher (2008) suggests that older people stop trying to be people they never were – stop pretending and accept the “gift of years” they now have.
It is wrong to assume that older people have reached the end of their spiritual journey, simply because they are further along in their life; that they have no particular spiritual needs or unlikely to grow further in their faith.
“Becoming the unique person God has in mind for me to be, is a lifetime’s journey” (Atwell 2011).
Our spiritual growth should be ongoing and our need for spiritual support and development continual. It is important to recognise that many older people may have had (and continue to have) struggles with their faith and spirituality at different times throughout their life – and old age is no different.
Many people cope with challenges, losses, stresses, and difficult situations by dismissing anything religious or spiritual; some older people may hold onto the rituals of religion but have abandoned the core of their Christian belief – simply ‘doing church’ rather than living a faith.
It is important therefore for Christian faith organisations to offer spiritual and pastoral support to those living in the fourth age – and not assume that because they are very old, they will have no spiritual needs.
Supporting the spiritual needs of older people
There are many ways the specific spiritual needs of older people may be helped by the church, but below we have listed the two we think are most important.
Meeting God through prayer and biblical reflection; sharing in fellowship and being part of a community of God and feeling His presence, love, and power. Dealing with doubts, anger, and disappointment can help older people on their spiritual journey.
In order to make sense of difficulties and challenges of old age; letting go of the ‘younger self’ and accepting the older person who may have limited physical abilities, mental function, and emotional resilience. Having an awareness of the end of life – this may involve resolving issues or conflicts of the past, receiving healing of past hurts, or seeking forgiveness.
- How does our church support and encourage older people in their faith journey?
- How proactive is our pastoral ministry to older people with spiritual support?
- What are the spiritual needs of older people in our church?
- How do we support and include those older people who are confined to the home and less able to attend services and prayer/bible meetings?
© Professor Keith Brown from ‘Guidance for Christian Faith Organisations in the Support and Value of Older People’.