In a 2014 Pew Research Center study nine out of ten adults in the United States report believing in God and more than half are “absolutely certain” God exists. While one in five Americans pray every day, attend religious services regularly and consider religion to be very important in their lives. Although these proportions are declining precipitously since an earlier 2007 study, today religion still plays an important role in the lives of older people.

lee woods/Flickr Commons
Source: lee woods/Flickr Commons

As adults get older they get more spiritual and some become more religious. It is not only that religious or spiritual people tend to live longer (they do, for many reason other than spirituality), but that older people become more spiritual and religious as they age.

There is a great attraction to argue for a spiritual interpretation of aging. Two religious gerontologists did just that when Jane Marie Thibault and Richard Lyon Morgan in 2012 made themselves their own subject matter when they wrote a book about their aging experiences. In a self-described pilgrimage into their third age, they interpret aging through religion. While growing up God has shown us how much he loves us by making us healthy, giving us pleasure through our bodies, nature, perhaps experiencing the miracle of having children. As we age then it is time for us to show God how much we love him in return. God stops showing us how great he made us and now it is our turn to reciprocate. In one example, by using “dedicated suffering,” we acknowledge our pain and dedicate it for the benefit of others. And it works. When people dedicate their suffering they report a reduction in pain. This spiritual switch—as older adults we are now responsible for the expression of gratitude—has some surprising support in the scientific field.

The Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam in 1989 developed a theory that argued that older age brings about spiritual growth. Gerotranscendence Theory suggests that older individuals—perhaps because of ill health—tend to experience a redefinition of self and their relationships with others. By redefining ourselves we become more spiritually aware. More recent in 2009 the American Pamela Reed in developing her own Theory of Self-Transcendence states that individuals who face human vulnerability have an increased awareness of events that are greater than them. So is spirituality the answer to this increasing loss of control that we experience as we age?

Research tends to support this interpretation. In one review, the Portuguese researcher Lia Araújo and her colleagues, report numerous studies showing that religion, spirituality, and personal meaning have a broad range of mental and physical health benefits, satisfaction with life and coping better with stress. In older age, existential issues—contemplating life and death—appear to gain increasing importance. There seems to be a growing preference for acquiring meaning from faith. It seems that the greater the challenge the greater the religious or spiritual meaning that we gain from the experience. By gaining a positive meaning of life, purpose, religion, and spirituality individuals also gain a higher level of life satisfaction. Regardless of physical health, developing a positive attitude toward life has positive outcomes. It is only when religion becomes an ineffective tool for explaining dramatic challenges that people start revoking their religious conviction.

Christopher Ellison with the University of Texas at Austin and others have referred to this area of research as the “dark side of religion.” Doubt in our beliefs can have very negative consequences. Doubt erodes one of the major functions of religion which is to provide an explanation for why we are aging—such religious explanations are generally referred to as theodicies

But we are always looking for a reason, a model of the world that is just, logical and predictable. Religion has that extra facet of immortality—life in the afterworld, a comfort to those that have to confront the eminence of death. Whether we get this view of the world from religion, science or from intellectualizing, the overarching observation is that we need to have such a view. Everyone has an opinion on things that matter to them. Some simply don't call it religion but having an explanation comes with the territory of being human.

© USA Copyrighted 2018 Mario D. Garrett


Araújo, L., Ribeiro, O., & Paúl, C. (2017). The Role of Existential Beliefs Within the Relation of Centenarians’ Health and Well-Being. Journal of religion and health, 56(4), 1111-1122.

Ellison, C. G., & Lee, J. (2010). Spiritual struggles, and psychological distress: Is there a dark side to religion? Social Indicators, 98, 501–517.

Rogers, M. E. (1989). An Introduction to the Theoretical Basis of Nursing. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis

Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: Effects of the sense of control. Science, 233(4770), 1271-1276.

Thibault, J. M., & Morgan, R. L. (2012). Pilgrimage Into the Last Third of Life: 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth. Upper Room Books.

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