William Mick | Nov 15, 2018 | Professional Insights
The winter months include some of the most important religious holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Since religion and spirituality play such a key role in the lives of seniors --- and have an evidence-based effect on their physical and cognitive health --- make sure you provide support for older adults during the holidays that allows faith to have a seat at the table.
Religion versus spirituality.
It's common for young people to say they are spiritual, but not religious. That's often the case with seniors as well. Religion and spirituality are both types of belief. Religion is based more around dogma and organized faith structures. Spirituality is a looser belief in a higher power, but with fewer rules and rituals. Scientists use the terms organized religious activity (ORA) and non-organized religious activity (NORA) to differentiate between people who engage in religion and spirituality.
More than 90% of older people identify as religious or spiritual, an overwhelming number when compared to the general population. In addition, nearly half of all seniors attend religious services at least once a week, and for older adults in general, their religious community is the largest source of social support outside of their family.
The health benefits of faith.
Multiple studies have confirmed that people who are religious or spiritual tend to have better overall health than nonreligious people --- both mental and physical health. According to a study by Merck, religious belief may provide:
• A positive and hopeful attitude about life and illness, which tends to lead to better health outcomes
• A sense of meaning and purpose in life, which affects health behaviors and social and family relationships
• A greater ability to cope with illness and disability
Research summarized in Mayo Clinic Proceedings noted that religious/spiritual people actually live longer and exhibit less cardiovascular disease, hypertension and lower blood pressure. Perhaps because they tend to respect authority and follow rules and guidelines, people of faith generally eat healthier, exercise more, smoke less and see their doctor about preventive screenings.
Maybe the most significant benefit of faith life in seniors is its impact on mental health. According to a study in International Psychogeriatrics, “Spirituality and religion appear to slow cognitive decline, and help people use coping strategies to deal with their disease and have a better quality of life.” Religious belief seems to help caregivers cope as well. The Merck report states, “One study of caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease or terminal cancer found that caregivers with a strong religious faith and many social contacts were better able to cope with the stresses of caregiving.”
Use religious holidays to promote community and belonging.
Belonging to a religious or spiritual group instills in its members natural sense of community. That's important for older people as it helps them stay connected with others and avoid social isolation. Less loneliness and depression --- and more hope --- help seniors navigate tough times, such as the loss of loved ones and stress due to health or financial concerns.
Religious observances around holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah and others can help seniors strengthen their relationships when they participate in social events, faith groups, volunteer activities or charitable causes. It's a virtuous circle as members of the community support each other. The Merck study notes, “Increased social contact for older people increases the likelihood that disease will be detected early and that older people will comply with treatment regimens because members of their community interact with them and ask them questions about their health and medical care. Older people who have such community networks are less likely to neglect themselves.”
Clearly, there appear to be some therapies outside the reach of modern medicine that have a positive impact on the health and happiness of seniors. Since religion and spirituality seem to be effective in helping older adults maintain both mind and body, you should make sure senior believers have every opportunity to participate in their faith community of choice, during the holidays and throughout the year.