Old Age is coming of age as our Baby Boomers enter old age. Now in their middle 50’s to their early 70’s, this illustrious group of post World War II babies are facing the realities of aging in huge numbers. You can be sure they will do their best to redefine old age in their terms.

As health strategies improve, more people may live significantly longer lives. The standard retirement age of 65 is adjusting to people who are not ready to retire at that age. Increased mobility allows people to discover new ways and places to actively participate in their old age.

What will the church do to minister to a growing number of people who are in or approaching old age? The old standard of providing a monthly lunch for our senior citizens may no longer meet the spiritual needs of this emerging population of active seniors looking for new knowledge and experience.

Having already looked at spiritual life in interfaith congregations in the mainstream (See “An Original Research Study on Spiritual Life in the United Church of Christ, followed by similar studies in the Episcopal and Catholic Churches and the Reform Jewish Tradition”), our exciting task for this group is to discover any changes in spiritual life that may occur in our current population of people in or approaching old age.

The Research:

Once again, we turned our attention to specific spiritual issues in old age:

  1. In our original questionnaire on spiritual life in mainstream, religious congregations, people reported God experiences in which God became “real”.  But they reported fewer spiritual experiences after age 60.  What did that mean?
  2. Are physical changes in the aging process accompanied by changes in our spiritual lives?
  3. What spiritual issues are people dealing with in the aging process?
  4. Do our spiritual needs change as our bodies change?
  5. How is the church addressing spiritual needs in their aging population? Do those institutions that provide care for people in the aging process address spiritual concerns?
  6. Could we design a research study which could address those questions?

Our Sample:

We looked for places to interview people over sixty. This turned out to be far more extensive than our original study. Multiple locations are available for seniors to meet and/or live: Senior Citizen Centers; In-care Facilities for Seniors; Low Income Housing Units for Seniors; Programs for people in individual religious congregations.

Once again, we chose to interview people in a group setting. We created a new questionnaire, “Spiritual Life in the Aging Process”, with new questions to explore as we focused on spiritual life over sixty years of age.

We visited with thirty-five different institutions, located predominantly in the middle west and one in Scotland to get a glimpse of spiritual life outside the U.S. (We relied on the completion of our questionnaire rather than a visit in person.)  Twelve of the communities represented mainstream Protestant denominations. Three Catholic churches, one Carmelite Monastery and two Reform Jewish groups were included.  Two unaffiliated spiritual communities completed the list of participating religious groups.

Fifteen Senior Care Centers and Facilities were included. Some of which were affiliated with various religious groups.

Procedures for Collecting Data:

In each of the data gathering sites, we met in a group setting, as arranged by the host institution. The history of our research in spiritual life and our purpose in gathering new data was explained to the participants. Generally, our participants were eager to talk about spiritual aging and fill out our new questionnaire.

In institutions where Chaplains were employed, we received additional information about the frequency of attendance at religious services and general commentary about the aging process.

One experience, shared in a Jewish retirement home, serves as a powerful example of the complexity and power of old age.

I was sharing general information about our study.  One woman seated in the back row of the auditorium interrupted me and started pointing her right index finger at me, “jabbing” the air around her with pointed downward motions.  “You don’t know anything about aging!”  she shouted at me.  She repeated in a stronger, strident voice, “YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT AGING.” I replied with close to the same emotion, “Teach me – Please Teach me”.

“You don’t know anything about aging until what you could DO yesterday, you CAN’T DO TODAY!”

AND SHE WAS RIGHT.  I had only scratched the surface of a subject that affects everyone.

In Part II, available this Fall, we will share what we learned; unexpected surprises; anecdotes beyond the data that were informative.  We will also present next steps for churches in the development of spiritual programs for people in the aging process.