We began our extended study of spiritual life after sixty when people in our original study described fewer God experiences in their later years. We wondered why.

As we met with a variety of sacred and secular groups, we began to see common aging concerns especially in in-care facilities. Life after age seventy seemed particularly concentrated on survival concerns. In this institutional setting, my spiritual life would come after life survival issues.

  1. My death was usually listed as my greatest concern, accompanied by issues of diminishing health and strength.
  2. The loss of family and friends was next in importance: societal mobility separates families.
  3. Financial security was a growing concern: Will I have enough money to support my old age?
  4. Who will take care of me if I can’t take care of myself? The reality of reduced capabilities.
  5. A reduced sense of value and self-worth.  If there’s an “in-group” where I live, will I belong? (It feels like Junior High School all over again!)  Issues of loneliness and personal value emerge.
  6. Concerns about my spiritual life.  Is there life after death? Have I lived a “good enough” life?

At the same time, our study included three groups who were having an entirely different experience of aging.

  •  A group of women in their eighties who met regularly in a suburban senior center were lively, excited to be together, not worried about their survival though not exempt from health issues.  Without a formal program for each meeting, they found great pleasure in simply being together in a loving, accepting environment.   They greeted us with open arms.
  • A group of cloistered nuns in a rural convent had spent their entire lives praying for others.  Though exempt from living in the world, they were focused on the world’s pain.  Even in their restricted environment, they were encouraged to have spiritual conversations and raise spiritual questions. Opening their doors to our study was a new experience of sharing their own concerns about life and death issues with outsiders in a highly spiritual setting.
  • A group of African American women, living in a low-income housing center in Chicago, engaged us immediately. All grandmothers, they were actively engaged in helping their families survive.  Filled with energy, hope, faith and love, they even found one man on the street and brought him into their group. Everyone is eligible for “saving”.  No exceptions.

This week, I questioned one of my spiritual life teams with participants over age seventy about their old age. “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in your old age?  What’s the worst thing that’s happened?” Their answers were immediate and powerful.  “I’m more content; I have achieved a level of wisdom and awareness; I’m happier; grateful, hopeful. I’m taking a victory lap in my life ‘race’! They all agreed that their faith was critical to how they felt!”  “Worst” things had to do with losses of friends and family.

As a part of the Spiritual Life Team program at this church, this team has spent the last three years sharing their spiritual lives which allowed them to easily identify spiritual issues in their later years and be comfortable talking about them. Talking about my spiritual life normalizes the experience.

Financial issues have forced many churches to discontinue their programs for their aging members or to limit them to occasional shared meals and/or lectures. Perhaps the “gift” in this economic reality is the opportunity to explore spiritual life in old age as an essential activity in the aging process.

Spiritual life in our later years is an unexpected surprise. While we experience a physical slowing down, our spirit knows no such restraints. Gifts abound! How will I express my spirit in my old age? How will I share my spiritual understandings?  Where will I leave my spiritual gifts?

Our Baby Boomers have always expressed an aversion to growing old. Perhaps our job is to demonstrate how critical spiritual life is to our growth as human beings at all ages. My husband and I were speaking to a group of younger people. We watched one woman in her early 30’s sign up for our class, look at both of us, and leave. A few minutes later she returned to register for the class. After we were finished, she explained: “I walked in, saw you and said, what could those two old people teach me about anything? Then I came back and found how much you had to teach me about everything”.

Click here to read: Spiritual Life in the Aging Process: The New Spiritual Frontier – Part I