One area that provides room for continuing growth in the senior years is the spiritual domain. The body may break down, but the spirit is still capable of growth, renewal, or even new birth in old age. Those who are "spiritually dead" can find spiritual life through a new or renewed faith commitment in Christ. The new believer can grow toward spiritual maturity. The spiritually mature person can keep growing in wisdom, love, joy, and other spiritual gifts. In fact, many of this world's greatest prayer warriors are senior citizens. In spite of changes, losses, and chronic health conditions, elderly people can continue to cultivate their relationship with God.
Too often, however, elderly people encounter obstacles to spiritual support systems. Some are too feeble to get to church or to participate in religious activities with other believers. As their friends die or move away, they may lose their connections to the community of faith. Others feel alienated in churches that focus most of their energy on attracting a younger crowd. Failing eyesight can make it hard to read the Bible, and hardness of hearing can make it difficult to hear sermons. Seniors may be affected by negative stereotypes and myths that project old people as unteachable, useless, unproductive or dependent on others. Like all Christians, seniors need the fellowship and encouragement of other believers. Faith that is not nourished stagnates.
Aging in Body but Not in Soul
What can be done to foster an elder's faith? As a caregiver, you have a special opportunity to demonstrate the love of God to your elder. Your sensitivity to your aging loved one's spiritual needs can give comfort and stability in a time of change and uncertainty. Looking up to your elder spiritually is very affirming to him. A minister or chaplain can keep in contact with your elder too. Despite the obstacles, spiritual growth is both possible and desirable for the continued well-being of elderly people.
Gallup polls have shown that three-fourths of Americans past age 65 consider religion to be very important. A 1997 study found that people tend to pray more as they age; nearly 75 percent of the study's oldest respondents prayed at least once a day. J.S. Levin and R.J. Taylor, "Age Differences in Patterns and Correlates of the Frequency of Prayer," The Gerontologist 37 February 1997), 75-88. And although Bible reading has declined since the 1980s, half of all Americans over the age of 65 read the Bible at least weekly, compared to 27 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29. The Gallup Organization, "Six in Ten Americans Read Bible at Least Occasionally," Gallup News Service (October 20, 2000).
But do we become more religious as we grow older? It seems logical to think that people who have more free time and who are nearing the end of life would become more religious in their later years. Yet research indicates that this is not true for most older people. Religious behavioris related to previous religious activity, the period or time in which a person was raised and lived most of his life, and whether he has chronic health problems.Barbara Payne, "Spiritual Maturity and Meaning-Filled Relationships: A Sociological Perspective," in James J. Seeber's (ed.) Spiritual Maturity in the Later Years; (New York: Haworth Press, 1990).
Wake-Up Call for the Church
America's changing demographics should send an urgent wake-up call to the church. The population of the United States is growing older. The elderly population is expected to continue to grow tremendously, with the oldest-old (85 and older) as the fastest-growing sector.U.S. Bureau of Census, Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, Older Americans 2000: Key Indicators of Well-Being For the last quarter century, the birth rate has fallen while the senior population is exploding. Yet most American churches continue to focus on youth programs and reaching out to the next generation while neglecting the fastest-growing sector of society. We certainly need youth ministries, but we also need equally passionate plans to integrate older people into the life of the church and to reach out to those who are too frail to attend.
There are benefits to remaining active in a religious community. Church attenders are not only more likely to avoid unhealthy actions, such as drunkenness or smoking, but they also have a stronger social network to call on for advice or help—important for both caregivers and elders. Frequent church attenders develop close ties with friends, neighbors, and relatives, and these have a positive impact on their health.
While many elderly people do attend services, for others church attendance is a negative experience. One reason is that many churches and denominations have undergone dramatic changes in recent years, such as reexamining their doctrinal stances regarding the role of women in the pulpit, contemporary music styles, homosexuality, and other issues. The result is a church very different from the church of years gone by.
For older persons there is a sense of security in the traditional ways and a feeling of loss when these ways are abandoned. The switch from traditional hymns to contemporary songs, the incorporation of drums, and the use of drama and dance in some churches makes many older people uncomfortable. While some adapt to the changes or tolerate them because they do not want to leave their church, others slack off in attendance. Those who stop attending church might feel guilty for "forsaking the assembling" of believers together (Hebrews 10:25 NKJV), but they may not feel up to looking for a new church that is more traditional. In that case, consider checking around for a church with a worship style that suits your elder, then offer to attend with her. If poor eyesight keeps your elder from driving to church (a common problem for evening or midweek services, when it is dark), offer to arrange transportation.
An Overwhelming Church
Decreasing mental capacities also can make church an overwhelming or negative experience for a senior. Research shows that people with dementia (such as Alzheimer's disease) experience too much stimulation from attending religious services. Many people in this situation find it less stressful to watch religious television or listen to radio programs. A. Albertson Owens et al., "The Relationship Between Cognitive Status and Religiosity in Older Adults," 1993. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Raleigh, NC.
As you take care of your aging loved one, don't neglect your own times of prayer and personal Bible study. When you allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of your own heart to know the hope to which He has called you, you become better equipped to encourage your elder's faith and spiritual growth. No matter what happens, take the apostle Paul's advice, who, while a prisoner, said, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4 NIV). Then commend your aging loved one to the Lord's sovereign plan and tender mercies, trusting God to be faithful.