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A person’s faith is a deeply personal aspect of life, and many times the beliefs we hold become more of a priority as we get older.  A study by the University of Chicago found that faith in God increases as we age, especially in those over the age of 68.  It may not come as a surprise that an active faith can benefit emotional, mental, and even physical well-being.  Given the impact a person’s faith can have, it becomes even more essential that an older adult is supported and encouraged in their faith journey.  

Health Benefits of Faith in Older Adults
The health benefits of a strong faith are numerous, and studies examining the correlation between religion and health date back to the early 1900’s.  One such study listed in the Journals of Gerontology found a link between life expectancy and religious involvement.  The survey of 35,000 participants revealed an increase in life expectancy in those who considered religion very important and an even greater increase (4.38 years for women and 2.63 years for men) in those who attended religious services weekly.  

Religion and spirituality also appear to help slow cognitive decline and improve quality of life for those with dementia.  According to a study by International Psychogeriatrics, individuals who use their religion and faith in daily life were better able to preserve relationships, reduce or stabilize cognitive disorders, maintain hope, find purpose, and cope with their disease.  Despite cognitive impairment, older adults still have a need for inner peace and comfort, which faith can provide.

A sense of belonging is a benefit of attending religious services or being part of a faith community.  Relationships formed through faith practices help fight depression and loneliness, which often affects older adults.  Danira Parra, chaplain at Snyder Village, says, “I do believe that faith, prayer, and connecting to God and each other is more important now than ever…especially because there is more stressing us than ever before.”  Having others who are willing to pray, listen, and offer support can help a senior cope with the loss of a loved one or their own health difficulties.

Many older adults struggle with finding a sense of purpose in the later years.  For those whose career or young children once occupied their time, retirement or an empty nest can feel aimless.  A person’s faith can reveal a higher purpose and a desire to serve God and others.  A belief in God offers hope, which can bring a positive outlook, inner peace, and satisfying joy.  

“Studies show there are many health benefits in utilizing just one faith modality – that of prayer,” explains Chaplain Parra.  “Benefits include stress reduction, inhibiting cortisol, increasing endorphins, lowering blood pressure, reducing the incidence of ulcers, and lifting the attitude.  Given our current environment and reality, I’d say that the regular practice of faith and the disciplines that go with it – like prayer, fasting, and mediation – are more important than ever.”

Spiritual Needs of Older Adults
Researcher Nancy C. Kehoe, RSCJ, Ph.D., has done extensive studies to identify fourteen spiritual needs of older adults.  Among them are a need for meaning, purpose, and hope; a need for support in dealing with loss; a need for personal dignity and sense of worthiness; a need for unconditional love; and a need to love and serve others.  

The importance of meeting spiritual needs can often be overlooked, but the benefits of faith on whole-body wellness are evident and effort should be made to meet these needs.  If your loved one has difficulty getting to church or a Bible study because of mobility issues, offer to drive them or arrange transportation.  If it becomes too difficult for them to leave their home, consider offering to read Scripture to them, do a Bible study with them, or ask a pastor or priest to visit them.

For those considering a move to a senior living community, choosing one that is faith-based or has a religious affiliation can help meet the spiritual needs of those whose faith is important to them.  Snyder Village in Metamora, IL, is a Christian-based organization whose mission is “to provide for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of others in a loving, dignified and Christian atmosphere.” Spiritual needs are met through campus Bible studies and devotionals, hymn sings, Protestant and Catholic chapel services, and a campus chaplain.  However, Snyder Village is not associated with a particular denomination, and residents are welcomed regardless of religious affiliation.  

It’s important to not overlook an older adult’s spiritual needs, even if mobility or health challenges are present.  “Remember that because God is everywhere, it doesn’t take being in a special place or time to exercise your faith,” says Chaplain Parra. “You can pray anywhere, anytime.  And just as with physical exercise – the more you do it, the stronger, more fit you will be.”

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