Spirituality March 2010
~ We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. ~ Stephen R. Covey
The Princeton Senior Resource Center--as most non-religious organizations that try to be inclusive of the diversity of this community--does not usually address spiritual issues. But I think we are missing a critical aspect of holistic healthy aging (along with physical, mental and emotional health) if we ignore the spiritual dimension.
Before I lose readers who have had a bad experience with organized religion, let me say that spirituality includes our core values and beliefs, where we find meaning, and what gives us quality of life. “Spirituality is about our existence, relationships with ourselves, others and the universe. It is something we experience and requires abstract thinking and will. Spiritual development provides us with insight and understanding of ourselves and others…the function that integrates all other aspects of personhood…and is often seen as a search for meaning in life. Spirituality extends beyond the physical, material and self to a state called transcendence.” I submit that one’s later years are fertile ground for deepening spirituality.
Each of us needs to find ways to nurture the spirit within us, just as we feed our bodies and our minds with exercise, nutrition and cognitive stimulation. In fact it is often the spirit that perseveres when the mind and body have failed, and the spirit that lingers in the memories of those who remain. In this vein, it is important for us to acknowledge the spirit inside a person with dementia or diminished abilities.
Spiritual awareness grows with experience and wisdom. Without some of the challenges of life, we do not reach deep within or far outside of ourselves to find meaning or comfort. We may find a greater need to have an active spiritual life when we get older as we find ways to cope with the loss of spouse, family, friends, physical and mental abilities, or the activities that gave our lives a sense of purpose and identity. We encounter more things we cannot explain, the wonders and mysteries of life, from the intense feeling of love for a baby to the first bud of spring. We are more likely to have had a transcendent experience, and to be shifting our focus from material things to satisfaction with life.
As we age, we find ourselves thinking more about questions like “what comes after death?” or “what is quality of life?” that cause us to re-examine the values and beliefs we have known for a lifetime. One might ask “where can I find meaning and purpose with the limitations I now have?” or “where do I find the reserve to go on through this grief or deal with this illness?” I think these questions compel us to connect with our spirituality. It may also be true that as we age, we find more time for inner reflection and spiritual practice: meditation, contemplation, reflection, solitary walks…. Some find themselves turning more to spiritual sources for strength and guidance, especially when the sources they relied on earlier in life are not available. Others find people to share the exploration with, or readings that have particular meaning. We can find new opportunities to share our wisdom and be mentors and respected elders to those who are just starting out. Expressing our spirit by helping others is one way to attain personal satisfaction, comfort, and peace. Each of us wants to identify a legacy, the mark on the world that will live on after we are gone.
How can we get more comfortable with this vital spiritual side of ourselves, so that we find the personal answers that will give comfort and certainty in troubled times, so that we can release the depression, anxiety and fear that are so pervasive today? Can we begin to challenge the culture that denies aging and admonishes us not to talk about politics or religion with family and friends? I believe it is critical to nurture our spirits, continuing to seek deeper understanding, throughout the lifespan.
Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW
Institute for Spirituality and Aging website cas.umkc.edu/casww/sa/spirituality.htm (quoting Twycross 1988 and Thibault 1991)