by Jonathan Scott

No one would ever have described Walt and Gloria as religious. I didn’t know them when they were young, but Gloria had likely attended her local Methodist church with her mother. By the time I met the couple they were middle aged with young adult children and only a standard cultural involvement with things religious. They celebrated Christmas with a tree and presents and carols. They knew the popular Bible stories, used common phrases such as “Good Samaritan,” and would have likely listed “Methodist” or, at least, “Protestant” if required on a form. But they never attended services and were suspicious of religious zealousness of any flavor.

Then, inexplicably to me, when they were in their mid-seventies, Walt and Gloria started going to church regularly. Their daughter thinks it began when they were invited to a local Episcopal church by a close friend but, in any event, they chose a Methodist church for regular attendance, and Gloria was reconnected with the denomination of her childhood. Walt, who apparently had no particular religious background, even joined the choir.

Even though I was initially surprised, I needn’t have been. Their story isn’t anything new and is being repeated over and over again with seniors in America. It transcends lines of denominations and certainly isn’t limited to Protestant Christians. It’s a story that has implications for the religious institutions these seniors turn to, and even for some of the assumptions on which our culture is based.

“I’ve seen this frequently,” says Rabbi Dov Goldberg, who serves the Beth Israel congregation in Fayetteville. “When we’re young we can sometimes be on autopilot—focused on mundane, day-to-day, survival. When we retire, we may first go all in for recreation but, beyond that, we have the opportunity to feed the deeper needs that we were mostly ignoring. We can begin to reflect on ourselves.”

Goldberg attributes much of the renewed interest in Judaism he’s witnessed in his congregation to experiences of a personal loss in later years. “There are a handful of life cycle moments when we become susceptible to religious ideas. When we lose folks who are close to us, we reflect on the meaning of life, who they were, and the impact they had on us.

“In those times we can feel out of control—even on a practical level—and turn to our religion to tell us what to do. The traditions of a familiar faith can help us navigate our grief. It’s not unusual for people who experience loss to change their behavior and start coming to services more frequently.”

As common as this trend may seem to those in the clerical profession, human sciences have been slow to shine their own light on the issue of shift in religious value as people age. Religion and science have had an uncomfortable relationship for centuries but if we, as a society, are to improve the aging process, we may have to start thinking about the role of faith—or its lack. 

Jane Marie Thibault is a Presbyterian gerontologist and emerita clinical professor in Family and Geriatric Medicine. In a book coauthored with the Rev. Richard Morgan, Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life she writes, “There’s very little (study done about) theological development in terms of the faith of older adults. It’s so necessary. In my research, I’ve noticed crises of faith, severe crises of faith, often occur in later life.”

“It’s the big what does come next? question,” says Rev. Colette Bachand, Chaplain for Penick Village in Southern Pines. Bachand, an Episcopalian, has done extensive research and work with the spiritual care of those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “For some people, life has been a system of rewards and punishments, so they think, ‘If I’ve not been good enough, am I not going to heaven?’ That’s a huge issue, and different faith denominations have different perspectives. If a person is 80-years old and thinks he may be going to hell, it can be very difficult. I once counseled a person who, in his perspective, hadn’t done enough in his life. And when he was dying, he was terrified.”

In her work as local chaplain of Liberty Home Care & Hospice Services, Rev. Karen Wicker has been involved with many intimate conversations on faith with people approaching the end of their lives. “So much depends on their life experience,” she says. “Some people may never have had a faith. Maybe it wasn’t in their home. Maybe they once did, but now they’re angry at God for taking a loved one. But, if they’re willing, it’s not too late for them to establish an emotional connection with a faith.”

Rev. Wicker’s thoughts are echoed by Rev. Tom Lamkin. Lamkin is a pastor with the Association of Missions for the Sandhills Baptist Association. “I don’t think we ever lose the hunger for the spiritual. We may try to hide it. We may try to run from it. Maybe it’s never been there in the formal sense—maybe we didn’t go to Sunday school, we weren’t baptized when we were nine, we never went to youth group—but that doesn’t change the fact that we are fundamentally spiritual beings. 

There will be those natural life events that will confront us that say, ‘There’s more to life than what you are.’ That’s when the spiritual aspect comes forward.”

Unfortunately, even for people who reach their senior years with a lifetime of religious commitment, faith in later years can have challenges. “Years ago when I was serving in a local church ,” says Rev. Lamkin, “an older member of the congregation, whose family had been there for a long time, sat in my office crying. She said, ‘I just want my church back. I want it the way it used to be!’ Her anchor had been her religion. By that time, almost all the people she had known in leadership positions had passed away or retired, and new arrivals to the town were moving into the congregation. It wasn’t that we were doing anything wrong. But she was losing her stability.”

“Across the board,” says Rev. Bachand, “it seems as if it’s harder for congregations to stay in contact with their aging members. 

I think so many faith traditions are focused on survival and how they can attract young families. Everything is so youth oriented, which is great, but let’s not forget the people who filled up the chairs at Sunday school years ago and are now living in an institution or can’t drive to church.”

“There’s a grieving that people suffer when they’re isolated from their faith community or from their church,” says Rev. Wicker. “For some patients, we have to redefine church. When I visit someone who is no longer mobile, I may pullout my iPhone and play the hymns channels on Pandora. I read Scriptures, or we sing together. It’s bringing religion to them in a way they can experience without it being in a communal setting in a building with a steeple.”

In 1999, in one of the few scientific studies touching on this issue, the academic journal Demography published the results of a longitudinal study of more than 20,000 adult Americans. The researchers concluded that people who identify themselves as having a religious involvement live approximately seven years longer than those who do not. The most obvious reason might be the repeatedly proven benefit of social support. Maxine Hancock, writing for the international online religious journal Pantheos in 2010, wrote, “Aging, of course, makes a mockery of our cult of individualism. You might be able to be young and think you can take on the world alone, but you cannot take on old age alone—or, if you attempt to do so, it is a sad and lonely affair. To grow old within a congregation of those who share your faith is to grow old within a goodly company.”

Despite the tradition in charismatic and evangelical denominations of believers testifying in public to their conversions and devotion, I had a difficult time finding people who were willing to talk to me about changes in their personal attitudes toward religion as they grew into their senior years. 

Gloria, whom I mentioned in the beginning, had no inclination to talk about her return to church. I’m certain she receives comfort from the familiarity of the liturgy and a feeling of support from the congregation. But after her husband, Walt, died, she confessed to her daughter, “I’m not sure I can believe he’s in a better place.”

I believe, or very much want to believe, that religious faith can provide people with strength, courage, and peace of mind in later years. My wish for those of us who are religious is that we may continue to find the best in our faiths and in ourselves as we continue to age. As the 12th Century German saint, Hildegard von Bingen, wrote in one of her mystical songs, “Like billowing clouds, like the incessant gurgle of the brook, the longing of the spirit can never be stilled.”

Rev. Colette Bachand has defined five issues that often concern people as they approach the end of their lives:

• Granting forgiveness

• Receiving forgiveness

• Saying “I love you.”

• Hearing “I love you.”

• Peace/acceptance/resolution

Recommended Reading:

Do This, Remembering Me:
The Spiritual Care of Those with
Alzheimer’s and Dementia 

by Colette Bachand-Wood,
Morehouse Publishing, 2016

The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully 

by Joan Chittister, BlueBridge, 2010

Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life: 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth 

by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L Morgan, Upper Room, 2012

From Age-ing to Sage-ing : a profound new vision of growing older 

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, Grand Central Publishing, 2008

A Heart of Wisdom: Making the Jewish Journey from Midlife through the Elder Years 

Susan Berrin and Rabbi Harold S. Kushner,  Jewish Lights,  1999