Spirituality, Religion, and Aging

Religion and spirituality are enduring aspects of the human condition. Some of the earliest human records were accounts of the spirituality and religious culture of the day. Religion and spirituality have also fueled human conflict for thousands of years. Our concern here is how religion and spirituality interact with aging: how aging affects religion and spirituality, and how religion and spirituality affect aging.

Religion is a social institution concerned with ultimate questions such as the meaning and purpose of life, the existence of a higher power, coping with the reality of suffering and death, the existence and nature of an afterlife, and what it means to lead a moral life. Religions are also social organizations that meet not only the need to join with other believers, but also various social needs such as comfort, aid, and social support. Most American adults are associated with a local congregation of a major faith. There are hundreds of religions with widely varying answers to life’s ultimate questions. Religious beliefs are among the most deeply held, and religion can be a source of both comfort and conflict. There are also people who attach no significance to religion. Religiousness is an individual attribute – the extent to which a person has internalized a religious culture and uses it to make decisions in their life.

Spirituality is an experiential, inner aspect of consciousness. It is the capacity to experience the sacred directly. Such experience can be cognitive, emotional, and/or motivational. For many people, the sacred can be experienced in an enormous variety of situations: nature, in relationships, in music, dance, and art, in religious devotions, in inspirational texts and orations.

The inner experience of spirituality and socially constructed religion are related for most people, and for some people are inseparable. But there are also people who consider themselves spiritual who disavow religion and still others who find neither term applies to them. In the US, a large majority of elders have had a lifelong identification with their religion and are long time members of their local religious group. Local religious groups are the most common type of community organization member ship for middle aged and older people. About half of the general population attends religious services at least twice a month. Frequency of attendance increases with age up to age 60 and then declines gradually thereafter. Informal religious behavior such as reading scripture, personal prayer or meditation, or participation in religious study groups also increases with age and is especially important for disabled elders. Religious involvement is particularly important for African Americans and women.

Local religious groups and regional and national denominations vary considerably in how they approach the needs of aging and older members. Some consciously work to maintain integration of older members in the life of the religious community by taking steps such as recruiting elders for leadership positions, making special efforts to provide transportation to elders, and mobilizing the religious group to attend to the special needs of frail elders. Other local religious groups may do very little to encourage continued participation or attend to the needs of their older members, even in situations where the proportion of older religious group members is rapidly increasing. Religious groups are not immune to the agism that permeates their culture.

More than 90 percent of adults express a religious preference, and a large proportion of older adults believe that their faith has grown stronger over time. Life stage appears to be related to spiritual development. In middle age, many adults begin to address seriously the issue of life’s meaning. They may find that conventional superficial answers to this question are increasingly unsatisfying. During this stage, many adults embark on a quest that may involve systematic study and reflection, which in turn often gives a sense of deepening understanding. Tornstam’s (1994) theory of gero-transcendence holds that as people move into later adulthood, they begin to develop a more universal and less personal stance toward the meaning of life. By old age, many people take more enjoyment from their inner life, feel greater connection to the entire universe, and are less afraid of death.

Experiences of spirituality begin in childhood for many people and contain an element of transcendence in the sense that the experience transports the individual from his or her conventional perceptual field to being able to see things in a wider context. It could be said that spirituality is a direct experience of the source of spirit, the life force that animates all being. Spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, or making sacred music and art aim to cultivate a deeper awareness of spirit within the individual. For most people, spirituality is integrated with religious values, beliefs, and attitudes, but some see themselves as spiritual but not religious. A lifetime of spiritual practice makes a difference. From middle age onward, people may find that many years of spiritual practice and life experience combine to soften the edges of their religious ideas and create a more inquiring, spacious, and tolerant attitude toward other faiths. Spiritual development seems to lead toward more interest in common ground among religions and peaceful coexistence. One of the unfortunate results of age segregation in large urban communities is the loss of everyday interaction with spiritual elders, people whose high degree of spiritual development can be an important source of wisdom within the community.

Involvement in organized religion, subjective religiousness, and spiritual experience are associated with greater physical and mental well being and longevity. People affiliated with religions that prohibit tobacco, alcohol, and drug consumption tend to be healthier and live longer than others. As people age, the degree of participation in both formal and informal religious activities has been associated with better health and greater life satisfaction.

In general, the greater the degree of religiousness, the better people’s health and subjective well being. The greater the religiousness, the lower the prevalence of anxiety, fear of death, and loneliness. Highly religious people also cope better with grief. Religious beliefs and spiritual orientations are the very prevalent resources for coping with negative aspects of life, especially in old age. The more serious the problem, the more likely that people will use religious coping. However, religiousness can also be maladaptive if it isolates elders from others, if it defines negative aspects of aging as resulting from sin, or if elders seek support from their congregations and do not get it.

Sociologically, the subject of aging, religion, and spirituality represents a relatively new field of inquiry, filled with important questions begging for better answers. There can be no doubt that those who see themselves as religious and/ or spiritual have a different, often better, experience of aging compared with those who do not. But better analytical description is needed of what happens, how, and why. In addition, we need better maps of how aging people relate to various types of religious organizations and better understanding of the effects of specific religious and spiritual beliefs and practices over time. Major challenges facing research in this area include incomplete theory development, difficulty in constructing measures that are valid across faith groups, and coping with the enormous diversity of religious beliefs and practices and their potential interactions with aging.


  1. Atchley, R. C. (2000) Spirituality. In: Cole, T. R., Kastenbaum, R., & Ray, R. E. (Eds.), Handbook of Aging and the Humanities, 2nd edn. Springer, New York.
  2. Atchley, R. C. (2004) Religion and Spirituality. In: Atchley, R. C. & Barusch, A. S. (Eds.), Social Forces and Aging, 10th edn. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, pp. 294-315.
  3. McFadden, S. H. (1996) Religion, Spirituality and Aging. In: Birren, J. E. & Warner Schaie, K. (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 4th edn. Academic Press, New York, pp. 162-80.
  4. Moberg, D. O. (2001) Spirituality in Gerontological Theories. In: Moberg, D. O. (Ed.), Aging and Spirituality: Spiritual Dimensions of Aging Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. Haworth, New York, pp. 33-51.
  5. Tornstam, L. (1994) Gero-Transcendence: A Theo­retical and Empirical Exploration. In: Thomas, L. E. & Eisenhandler, S. H. (Eds.), Aging and the Religious Dimension. Auburn House, New York, pp. 203-29.

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