Spirituality and Aging
Updated: 7 hours ago
My mother turned ninety May, 2020. Throughout her life, she was never shy about discussing her fierce intellect, telling everyone and anyone who would listen:
I was accepted to New York University (NYU) at sixteen. I graduated first in my class (Summa Cum Laude) of 2,000 students, at nineteen, completing my coursework in Statistics in only three years.
I used to wince every time she proudly announced this. Any type of “intellectual bragging” embarrasses me. In retrospect, I now understand her entire sense of self WAS her intellect. Her intelligence defined her. Set her apart from others. Even as a small child, I was acutely aware that my parents placed enormous value on two things-intelligence and success. I always believed I was valued not for who I was, but rather, for what I achieved (or failed to achieve).
Mom is now declining cognitively, and is, most likely, in the early stages of dementia. She gets easily confused, and is extremely forgetful. She is lonely and withdrawing from others. She rarely participates in her favorite activities. She has trouble navigating the internet and all devices, thus, skyping/zooming or face-timing with her family isn’t possible. As upsetting as all of this is to me, she is most likely terrified-aware that her intellectual capabilities are slipping.
Covid and social isolation have definitely contributed to her decline. After all, we are social creatures, and physical human interaction is essential to our well-being. Connecting to our spiritual side is equally important. Our spiritual side is not necessarily religiously oriented. Spirituality helps it enable us to connect with others in meaningful ways.
I wish mom was more spiritually oriented. She has always called herself an “Agnostic Jew,” which is a total oxymoron. As an agnostic, she neither believes in, nor understands the concept of spirituality. Yet, I know that having a spiritual “connection” can lead to a greatly improved sense of comfort and enhanced physical and mental health. This connection can range from talking a walk, communing with nature, spending time in inner reflection, and/or feeling a part of “something larger.”
In fact, research demonstrates that tapping into one’s spiritual side correlates with many health benefits. A recent study determined that spiritual practice leads to:
Improved confidence and self-esteem
A more hopeful outlook
A higher sense of purpose and meaning
Spiritual activities may help the elderly feel a deeper connection to the world, improving health and cognition. Such activities include:
Playing or listening to music
Getting a massage
Reading or writing
Arts and crafts
Holding hands or gazing into someone's eyes
Animal Therapy, or owning a pet
Doing absolutely nothing/Freeing oneself of distractions
Thankfully, mom’s residential facility is slowly and carefully re-opening activities. Residents will no longer have to eat meals alone in their apartments, nor avoid social interactions. These newly accessible events will enrich the lives of those who participate, making a positive, healthy difference in their world.
I hope staff members, myself, and my family can encourage mom to engage with residents in a way meaningful to her. After all, connection, especially as we age and move into our last developmental phase, is a form of spirituality.
As Unitarian minister Jennifer L. Brower explains:
Very simply, the aging process-the experience of moving into and through different developmental phases-affects the spirit and therefore one’s spiritual life. Naturally, that which moves the spirit, that which brings us deep meaning and satisfaction and enlivens us at 45 years of age may not be what nurtures our sense of wholeness and spiritual wellness at 93. So, in my view, the process of aging at every life stage brings about changes in one’s spiritual life.
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