People spend most of their lives focusing on the tangible world and their roles in it. They work at their jobs, manage their households, tend to their personal needs and socialize with friends. It can be a full, satisfying life, at least for a while.
As the aging process kicks in, so does a new yearning for many: to tap into the soul, where they hope to discover a sense of purpose, explore their faith or attain inner peace. Of course, how people go about finding and developing their spirituality varies and can impact the effectiveness of their efforts.
Still, pursuing a spiritual life in our senior years may be one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being.
According to the Merck Manual, 90 percent of older adults in the United States consider themselves spiritual or religious. Why all the interest in spirituality as you age?
Probably the biggest reason is a growing awareness of mortality, along with a desire to put meaning to the current life and glean hope for the one to come. Some older adults want to know what else is out there, beyond their physical life experiences. Others aspire to connect with God, nature or each other.
Spirituality doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. For some, being spiritual is as simple as spending time outdoors, taking in the beauty and awe of creation. For others, spirituality involves attending religious services, reading scripture, and praying.
Many people consider any activity that transcends physicality and brings purpose or connection spiritual. But while no universal definition of spirituality exists, most experts agree on its usefulness in providing powerful benefits to the body and mind, especially in aging adults.
Research shows that routinely visiting a house of worship helps combat stress, depression and anxiety common among older adults by encouraging social interaction and providing a built-in community of support. Listening to religious leaders and engaging in a faith-based study can also improve cognitive function by sharpening critical thinking ability and memory. Some studies even found a link between religious activity and lower blood pressure, inflammation, and the risk of heart attack.
Other spiritual paths lead to positive health outcomes for seniors, too. Meditation, which teaches awareness of the inner being, has many proven perks, from better blood and oxygen circulation to pain reduction to improved relationships. Yoga unites the mind, body and spirit to boost strength and balance, thereby reducing the risk of falls and other injuries. Spiritual reading, sharing and thinking help stave off dementia while increasing confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills.
Although there’s no right or wrong way to practice spirituality to reap benefits, following some key guidelines can enhance the experience and make it more rewarding.
No matter how you choose to engage spiritually, you’ll want to make good use of your time. These three steps can help:
1. Be intentional. In other words, have a plan and act on it. When you get up in the morning, decide what you intend to do to nurture the spirit and then follow through with action. Being intentional gives you direction and determination, plus it helps keep you committed to making spirituality a long-term habit.
2. Be devoted. Don’t let your spirituality be the thing you neglect in the schedule. Instead, treat your spiritual health as an integral part of your daily care, right along with sleep, exercise and healthy eating. Most important, give the activity your all by being fully present when you convene with your spiritual self.
3. Be grateful. Not only does gratitude help you appreciate your blessings in life; being grateful makes you aware you can’t do everything on your own. The American Society on Aging suggests you recognize the small and large graces of each day. You can express gratitude outwardly to another person or divine being or through quiet reflection.
Thanks to a growing interest in spirituality among older adults, an abundance of resources and activities are available for third agers on the subject. Do your research and try a variety of options to determine what best satisfies your spiritual cravings and lifestyle.
You might begin by learning about spirituality. Enroll in a spirituality or religion class, spend time picking the brain of a spiritual friend or read about faith topics that excite and intrigue you. There are plenty of books, articles, blog posts and courses on spirituality and aging that can be found online. Take advantage of all the insightful information available at your fingertips.
While knowledge serves as a starting point for growing your spirituality, don’t stop there. Try out a worship service to see if it’s a good fit, participate in a bible study or other spiritual discussion group, do community work that gives you purpose while benefiting others, join a spiritual choir for some musical inspiration or take up bird-watching or other nature activity to connect with the elements.
Exercise is another useful way to feed the soul. Senior centers and fitness clubs offer spiritual exercise classes that are paced for aging adults. Yin and chair yoga, popular among seniors, concentrate on slow movements, gentle stretches and poses and meditative breathing, You can also get spiritual by simply sitting in silence, enjoying the stillness and tranquility of the moment or journaling about your innermost thoughts and feelings. Even a deep, meaningful conversation with a spouse or friend instills a connectedness that helps the spirit flourish.
Whether you’re yearning for faith, purpose, inner peace or all three, the senior years can be the ideal time to search the soul for something deeper. Give your spiritual being the care it deserves and see what a difference it makes to the aging process—and your life.