Aging and wellness: Why spirituality matters

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Carol Orsborn, Ph.D.
Carol Orsborn, Ph.D.

When Celia moved into a long-term care residence, the one book she took with her was her Bible. The well-worn Scripture was her last tie to her church, the religious community that had supported her over the years.  Even though she had developed macular degeneration and could no longer read, she carried her Bible with her everywhere. 

Her most frequent request to both professional and family caregivers was to recite a favorite psalm or listen to a familiar hymn together. Faced with the changes and challenges posed by aging, Celia's reliance upon faith should come as no surprise. Research reveals what many professionals in the long-term care field readily observe:  that as people age, their interest in spiritual issues and practices increases.  (Robert Atchley, Ph.D., Spirituality and Aging.)  In fact, a study by Albert Winesman (2003) finds that adults age 65 and older are more than twice as likely to see themselves as spiritually committed as individuals aged 45-54.  

In our story, Celia —  who is a composite of best-case scenarios —  was fortunate that she found a community that understood the importance of providing spiritual and religious support to both residents and family members.  In the ideal setting, a pastor familiar with each individual's tradition would visit regularly.  Adult children, friends or volunteers who live nearby, would be able to take residents to their home church on a regular basis.  Many of the staff members in the community would share individuals' religious traditions and feel comfortable to respond to requests such as those Celia shared with caregivers.

Moreover, the community would have availed itself of a new generation of spiritual and religious resources to share with residents.  This would include such technology-enabled offerings as live streaming sermons, a therapeutic music program including spiritual selections delivered over web-enabled devices, and a new mHealth app, which provides individuals from a broad spectrum of traditions personalized access to prayers, meditations, sacred readings and more over smartphones.

While an increasing number of long-term care communities have included serving the spiritual needs of residents as part of their mission, few have dedicated sufficient resources to meet the need.  Research shows that when it comes to optimizing the potential for well-being, this is a missed opportunity.

Study after study finds that individuals like Celia who are able to maintain or establish new sources of comfort and strength later-in-life, receive such benefits as reduced anxiety, improvement in recall through meditation and an enhanced ability to cope with pain and illness. Here are a few of the studies:

  • Scholar Harold G. Koenig has done a thorough citation review showing the relationship between well-being, health and religiosity in later life, both cross-sectional and longitudinal.  His findings demonstrate a robust inverse correlation between anxiety, suicide, depression and religion in older persons. (Religion and Health in Later Life” by Harold G. Koenig, Chapter One in “Aging, Spirituality and Religion: A Handbook” by Kimble, Melvin et al.  Minneapolis Fortress Press, 1995.) 
  • People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. ( “The Biology of Belief” in “How Faith Can Heal”, Time Magazine cover story, Feb. 23, 2009)
  • A Stanford University-based 8-decade research study shows that for women, especially, on-going involvement with religion correlates to a longer, healthier life. (Friedman, Howard and Martin, Leslie, “The Longevity Project,” New York: Hudson Street Press, 2011.)

The benefits of spiritual and religious involvement to both residents and communities are clear.  However, achieving this level of support can be a challenge.  While in the ideal scenario, the individual is able to maintain her connection to her home church, the majority of individuals who move to long-term care communities become disconnected from their religious support systems.

Many rely on untrained volunteers from the neighborhood, who are likely to be unfamiliar with traditions other than their own.  Even when a facility is blessed with professional staff, pastors report that they are stretched to the breaking point meeting the needs of an increasingly religiously and spiritually diverse population of residents.  How is it possible to provide individualized support in view of the broad range of religions and spiritual belief systems represented within the long-term care community? 

One effort that is helping to close the gap is CoroFaith: mFaith : the first mHealth app to offer individuals access to a customized audio library of inspirational readings, prayers, sermons and meditations from the religious or spiritual tradition of their choice through any mobile device. The new offering by Coro Health , LLC, has been adopted by professionals for use in the long-term care and aging-in-place  communities and with patients in oncology settings.  Overworked clergy rarely take it upon themselves to visit former congregants once the individual can no longer actively participate in services. This is symptomatic of the overarching tendency of even the best-intentioned religious groups to cut back services to older individuals, catering instead to younger families and children in the congregation.  The burden of caring for the elderly has largely been passed to professionals external to traditional church ministries, such as pastors who serve the aging and hospital communities.  But it is increasingly rare for a community to have a full-time pastoral care professional on staff.  

While Celia's story is a composite, most professionals in the aging community have heart-warming stories to share about residents of long-term communities whose spiritual and religious needs are being met.  Not long ago, one of my colleagues at Coro Health came face-to-face with Marcia, a resident in the final stages of Alzheimer's.  Assessing Marcia's age and tapping her intuition, Debi Cost turned to her iPad to play a popular hymn for her: “The Lord Will Find a Way.”

Immediately, Marcia stopped rocking repetitively back and forth and instead, started swaying to the rhythm of the music. But most exciting of all was that she spoke three spirited words:  “Hymn, Wow, Amen.” The caregivers in the room were electrified.  As they explained to Debi later, they had never heard Marcia's voice before.  The research is solid, but it's stories like this that truly demonstrate what most individuals involved in the long-term care community intuit instinctively:  that not only does faith become increasingly important to individuals as they age, but that the tangible benefits to well-being are well worth making the effort to meet the need.

Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is the executive director of CoroFaith. Individuals can tap into CoroFaith: mFaith through any mobile device, operating iOs 4.3 or higher.  CoroFaith: mFaith is available in the iTunes Store. To download the app from the iTunes Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/corofaith-mfaith/id640075717?mt=8

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