Gerontology and the Psychology of Religion
Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality / edited by Raymond F.
Paloutzian, Crystal L. Park. (p.21-42)
Points of Connection:
Gerontology and the Psychology of Religion
SUSAN H. MC FADDEN
In a footnote to the first chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James pronounced old age “the religious age par excellence” (1902/1961, pp. 28–29). When he wrote that at the beginning of the 20th century, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years and persons 65 and older represented about 3.1% of the U.S. population. By 2030, demographers expect that 70 million people in the United States—about 20% of the total population—will be 65 and older (Administration on Aging, 2003).
This “longevity revolution” represents an unprecedented change in the age structure of human societies and has significant implications for the practice and the study of religion and of psychology. Presently, older adults’ preferred approach to coping with the challenges of aging involves religion (Koenig, George, & Siegler, 1988). Compared to all other age groups, older people demonstrate the highest levels of religiosity and receive many important forms of support from religious institutions (McFadden, 1995). Both the experience of aging and the inevitability of death produce profound questions about life’s meaning and purpose—questions to which the world’s religions respond with affirmations of human value regardless of age or nearness to death.
Against the backdrop of the dramatic increase in the number of persons living longer, this chapter reviews studies of religion and aging conducted in the last two decades of the 20th century. The chapter opens with a consideration of time and the meaning of age and aging. It then addresses issues related to definition, measurement, theory, methods, design, and diversity in research on religion and aging. Readers should consult Chapter 2 of thisHandbookfor background on the definitional question and Chapter 3 for a more complete elaboration on measurement issues. Because other chapters review studies that included older adults in research on religion’s contributions to physical health (Chapter 24), mental health (Chapter 25), and coping (Chapter 26), these topics are not addressed here. Much of this research on late life religiosity was conducted by sociologists of religion (see Moberg, 1997, for a review), who devoted little attention to the “basic psychology subdisciplines” addressed in Part III of thisHandbook. The last section of this chapter asserts that research in these subdisciplines—especially on the cognitive psychology of aging and the psychology of late life emotion—can contribute to the psychology of religion in the 21st century, the first half of which will be dominated by the “longevity revolution.” In addition, the chapter suggests that the psychology of religion can raise important questions for research on late life cognition and emotion.
TIME AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION AND AGING
Aging is a highly complex process unfolding in time and regulated by interrelated biological, psychological, and social systems (McFadden & Atchley, 2001). Whether viewed from the “bottom up” in light of molecular structures affected by genes, or from the “top down” in terms of the regulating function of consciousness enabled by the human nervous system, aging cannot be separated from the passage of time. Gerontologists generally agree that the amount of time a person has lived—chronological age—tells very little about functional capacity. Nearly everyone knows persons in their 70s who suffer from dementia and others who lead major organizations and run marathons.
Recognizing that there are usually significant differences between people age 60 and age 90, gerontologists sometimes refer to the young old (65–74), the middle old (75–84), and the oldest old (85 and older). However, this does not eliminate the problem that chronological age is a poor predictor of functional age. For this reason, some are starting to use the term the “third age” to refer to the time between the first retirement and the onset of disabling conditions that severely restrict activity (Weiss & Bass, 2002). Some individuals continue in the “third age” until death, maintaining high levels of physical, cognitive, and social functioning, while others slip into frailty. Thus, what seems to be a rather simple question—“How old is old?”—becomes very complex upon closer examination. Although the psychology of aginghas been defined as the study of “regular changes in behavior after young adulthood” (Birren & Schroots, 1996, p. 8), most of the studies reviewed here focus upon persons in their late 60s and beyond.
The inescapable factor of time in the study of aging and older persons raises two additional issues: cohort effects and period effects produced by the sociohistorical circumstances that can affect researchers’ questions and their data. In regard to cohort effects, it is important to recognize that persons now in their mid-70s entered adulthood when World War II ended. Jews who experienced the Holocaust are elderly and their suffering has affected their religious beliefs and worldviews, causing some to reject religious faith and others to center it in their lives (Myerhoff, 1978; Thomas, 1999). In the mid-20th century, U.S. mainline Protestantism rapidly expanded and embraced the values of science and modernism; elders socialized into adult religious life at that time rarely explored the mysteries of transcendence, so now, in old age, they may find themselves bereft of spiritual resources and religious beliefs that can provide a sense of meaning (Payne, 1984; Roof & McKinney, 1987). In the 1960s, as Catholic parents were launching their own children into adulthood, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) introduced profound changes in Roman Catholic religious life that some older adults celebrate and others grieve (Fahey & Lewis, 1984). Finally, after affecting numerous U.S. institutions due to its size, the baby-boom cohort entered adulthood challenging religious and political authority and producing a widespread debate about the relation between religion and spirituality (Marler & Hadaway, 2002).
Although religious meaning enables many older people to cope with suffering (Krause, 2003), it remains to be seen whether this will be true for new cohorts moving into old age. Some research indicates that a high percentage of persons in younger cohorts claim to be neither religious nor spiritual (Marler & Hadaway, 2002) and that persons who show no interest in religion in adolescence do not turn to it “by the time they have trudged well into middle age” (Altemeyer, 2004, p. 88). These examples suggest that the psychology of religion and aging must attend to the sociocultural factors that shape perspectives on religion held by persons belonging to different cohorts.
Students of religion and aging must also recognize that the historical period in which research is conducted can influence both researchers and research participants. As noted by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003), during the 1990s, the psychological study of religion rapidly acquired legitimacy through important publications and significant research support. Similarly, this chapter documents the proliferation of research on religion and aging that occurred at the end of the 20th century when federal agencies like the National Institute on Aging and private funding sources like the Fetzer Institute and the John D.
Templeton Foundation began to support this research. Future historians will need to examine these and other social forces that challenged the taboo against the study of religion in both psychology and gerontology.
FACTORS AFFECTING RESEARCH ON RELIGION AND AGING
Definitions and Measures
Chapter 2 of this Handbook describes the debates about defining religion and spirituality that attracted so much attention in the 1990s. Gerontology was not immune to controversies over the relation between religion and spirituality, although researchers have often noted that many older people do not consider religion and spirituality to be distinct constructs. For example, Nelson-Becker’s (2003) interviews with low-income, community dwelling elders about the meanings of “religion” and “spirituality” showed that most could not define spirituality. Also, as a reminder of the importance of attending to ethnicity as well as to age in shaping understandings of these constructs, Nelson-Becker found that a group of predominantly Jewish immigrants had much more difficulty talking about religion than the African American Christians she interviewed.
Most research with older persons has focused on religiousness as expressed throughorganizational participation, nonorganizational activities (prayer, meditation, reading sacred texts), and subjective evaluations of religiosity. This multidimensional approach to older adults’ religiosity began with research that showed that a drop in religious attendance did not predict a similar decline in nonorganizational religiosity (Ainlay & Smith, 1984; Mindel & Vaughan, 1978). Another important early study employed a multidimensional instrument to investigate religion and health in older people (Koenig, Smiley, & Gonzales, 1988). For their research on older black persons, Chatters, Levin, and Taylor (1992) developed a measure that assessed organizational and nonorganizational religiosity, as well as “subjective religiosity,” which they described as the “psychological aspects of religiosity” (p. S270), including beliefs, experiences, and whether religion was central in an older person’s life.
Despite these efforts to bring a multidimensional perspective on religion to studies of older adults, a report prepared in the mid-1990s for a conference on religion, health, and aging, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Fetzer Institute (Futterman & Koenig, 1995) argued that gerontologists as a group still had “little sense of the scope and breadth of the religious domain” (p. 24) compared to sociologists and psychologists. After this conference, a working group convened and produced a publication with 13 measures of religiousness and spirituality related to physical and mental health. These included specific measures of phenomena such as meaning, values, beliefs, forgiveness, and coping, along with a multidimensional measure of religiousness and spirituality (Fetzer Institute/National Institute on Aging Working Group, 1999).
In their report on religiosity measures used by gerontologists, Futterman and Koenig (1995) noted that few researchers included items related to intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest religious orientations. Although this distinction has a long and contentious history in the psychology of religion, many gerontologists are unfamiliar with this literature. There are some exceptions, however. For example, from the beginning of his research program, Koenig has consistently employed items measuring intrinsic religiosity in his studies of religion and well-being in older people and has generally found high levels of intrinsic religiosity in older people (e.g., Koenig, Moberg, & Kvale, 1988). Differences between black elders and white elders have also been consistently identified, with the former showing higher levels of intrinsicness (Chatters et al., 1992). A study comparing Canadian Christian elders to Thai Buddhist elders found that in both groups those with a greater intrinsic religious orientation worried less (Tapanya, Nicki, & Jarusawad, 1997). Only a few researchers have examined the quest religious orientation in older adult samples. In a longitudinal study of older adults, a revised version of the Quest Scale produced two factors: a search for meaning in later life and doubt related to negative experiences with religious institutions and authorities (Futterman, Dillon, Garand, & Haugh, 1999). A subsample of widows from that longitudinal study showed higher levels of the quest orientation at the first observation, but a year later this group of elderly women showed little inclination toward questing (Thompson, Noone, & Guarino, 2003).
Recognizing that older people sometimes have different views on the meaning of terms used by researchers, the need for multidimensional measures, and the weak psychometric testing conducted on many measures, Krause (2002a) recently proposed a nine-step strategy for developing closed-end survey items for studies of religion and aging. He used focus groups, a panel of experts, individual interviews with older persons, and a nationwide random probability sample. Krause’s approach is highly labor-intensive, but he presents a strong argument for the need to take this careful, multifaceted approach to the study of religion. For example, after developing a set of closed-end items, he conducted cognitive interviews with older adults, first asking for a response to each item, and then using focused probe questions to inquire about interpretations of the item. This led to the observation that a well-known question from Pargament’s (1997) work on religious coping (turning to God for strength and guidance) was confusing because older people viewed “strength” and “guidance” as two different reasons for turning to God.
One of the great gaps in the development of multidimensional measures of religiosity lies in the lack of knowledge about how to assess religiosity in persons with dementia. A PsycInfosearch on “dementia” and “religiosity” yielded only one study that included persons with dementia, but only nine out of 109 participants had dementia and most of them could not complete the 88-item questionnaires by themselves (Koenig, Moberg, & Kvale, 1988). Currently, about 10% of persons over 65 and 50% of persons over 85 have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia in older people (Alzheimer’s Association, 2003). Given the high degree of religiousness observed in elders who do not suffer dementia, one might assume many persons with dementia once led active and meaningful religious lives. Observations by chaplains, social workers, and others who work with institutionalized persons with dementia reveal that many participate in religious activities, often showing startling lucidity as they recite texts, sing hymns, and participate in rituals (Shamy, 2003).
Researchers rarely attempt to interview people with dementia to learn about their hopes, sources of meaning, and perceived quality of life. If we are indeed entering an era when the personhood of people with dementia will be honored (Kitwood, 1998), then researchers are going to need to devise ways of assessing their religious and spiritual needs and whether they are being met. Paper-and-pencil surveys will probably yield little usable data, so other methods will have to be devised. In addition to interviews, careful behavioral observations can be conducted. An example was a study of a group of persons living in a small dementia care unit that noted behaviors reflecting aspects of Emmons’s (1999) construct of “spiritual intelligence” (McFadden, Ingram, & Baldauf, 2000).
Theories and Research Methods
Considerable gerontological research has been designed and conducted with little explicit reference to the metatheoretical perspectives and theoretical frameworks that guided the development of hypotheses, selection of participants, measures and research design, and interpretations of findings. One of the “founding fathers” of geropsychology, James Birren, has often described studies of aging as “data-rich and theory-poor” (1988, p. 155). Two books devoted to correcting this situation have made important contributions (Bengston & Schaie, 1999; Birren & Bengston, 1988), but neither contains any reference to research on the psychology of religion, nor does a collection of theoretical essays on the psychology of religion contain any specific reference to the study of aging and older adults except for one table addressing religious development from birth through old age (Reich, 1997).
One notable exception to the “theory-poor” condition in studies of religion and aging is found in the work of Neal Krause and his colleagues. In research on aging, religious doubt, and well-being, they tested Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (doubt as detrimental) and Piaget’s theory of disequilibrium in cognitive development (doubt as beneficial) (Krause, Ingersoll-Dayton, Ellison, & Wulff, 1999). Identity theory predicted that older adults would experience more deleterious effects of religious doubt due to their loss of multiple role identifications. In contrast, Erikson’s work on the late life struggle between integrity and despair suggested that doubt would be less problematic for older people because they are actively engaged in a life review process to formulate an integrated perspective on the life span. The research that tested these four theories showed that religious doubt was related to a reduction in psychological well-being and older people experienced less vulnerability to the effects of religious doubt than younger people.
Other examples of Krause’s care in establishing the theoretical basis of his research include a study on forgiveness and older adults’ well-being (Krause & Ellison, 2003) and an examination of the relation between church-based social support and older adults’ health (Krause, 2002b).
In addition to his insistence on clearly delineating the theoretical underpinnings of his research, Krause’s work is notable also because of his use of large, national probability samples as well as small focus groups and interviews with older persons (Krause, 2002a; Krause, Chatters, Meltzer, & Morgan, 2000). Interest in qualitative gerontology as a complement to quantitative methods is growing as researchers broaden their epistemological perspectives, pay attention to outliers instead of focusing only on centraltendency, and recognize the active, interrelated subjectivity of researchers and research participants (Reinharz & Rowles, 1988; Rowles & Schoenberg, 2001). Susan Eisenhandler (2003), a longtime proponent of qualitative gerontology, has identified two dimensions of older adults’ religious faith: reflexive faithbased on “religious folkways” that guide behaviors without a person’s conscious investment in their meaning, andreflective faith that involves wrestling with what is believed, why religion is important, and the wayfaith shapes responses to the challenges of late life. Another example of a qualitative approach is Ramsey and Blieszner’s (1999) investigation of spiritual resiliency in older women. Their interviews and focus groups uncovered the significance of the communal component of religious life, emotions shared in religious settings, and the religious roots of interpersonal relationships. Ramsey and Blieszner’s work not only employed qualitative methodology, but it was also guided by feminist theorizing about human relationships and the social construction of meaning. Their work exemplifies the postmodern feminist perspective on gerontology that has the potential to produce new ways of theorizing about and investigating late life religiousness and spirituality (Ray & McFadden, 2001).
Gerontologists agree that longitudinal research offers the best way of understanding the factors that shape late life religiosity and its effects on variables like well-being. Most longitudinal research takes two forms: follow-ups of populations originally examined in cross-sectional studies and secondary analysis of archived longitudinal data sets (Schaie & Hofer, 2001). An example of the former approach comes from Idler and Kasl’s studies of the relation between religion and health. Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses showed a greater effect on functional ability from religious attendance than from subjective religious involvement. Their research also showed that persons experiencing shortterm reduction in function, and thus a decline in religious participation, went back to previous levels of attendance as soon as possible (Idler & Kasl, 1997a, 1997b). Several years later, Idler, Kasl, and Hays (2001) returned to this large, religiously diverse sample of older people and studied religious practices and beliefs among persons who died within 6 or 12 months of the last interview and those who survived past 12 months. Their prospective design allowed them to conclude that only those persons in the last 6 months of life declined in their levels of religious participation; subjective religiousness showed no decline at all, and in some cases it increased.
Wink and Dillon studied spiritual development across the life course using archived data collected from two birth cohorts (1920/1921 and 1928/1929) originally involved in research conducted by the Institute for Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley. This data set, generated from interviews conducted from childhood to old age, was not originally meant to disclose insights on religion and spirituality. However, Wink and Dillon coded for spirituality by defining it as a “search for connectedness with a sacred other” (2002, p. 84) and coded for religiosity through answers to questions about religious attendance and the centrality of religion in participants’ lives. They found a significant increase in spirituality from midlife to older adulthood (late 60s and beyond), particularly among women. Other analyses of this data set have related personality characteristics of self-confidence, intellectual engagement, and dependability in youth to a continuity of religious involvement across adulthood into old age (Clausen, 1993; see also McFadden, 1999).
In recent years, there has been an important convergence of developments in statistical analyses with the availability of longitudinal data. For example, the fifth edition of the Handbook of the Psychology of Agingcontains a chapter on structural equation modeling in longitudinal research (Rudinger & Rietz, 2001), a topic not addressed in previous editions. This statistical technique is rapidly changing the study of aging and older adults and has begun to attract attention from researchers interested in religion. A recent paper addressed how structural equation modeling and latent growth curve analysis can be applied to the study of aging persons’ religiousness and spirituality (Brennan & Mroczek, 2002).
An important contribution of the last two decades of study of older adults’ religiousness and spirituality has been the attention given to gender, racial, and religious differences.
The observation that men are less religious than women is, as Rodney Stark has declared, a phenomenon that “holds around the world and across the centuries” (2002, p. 495), as well as across age groups. Many researchers have noted that older African Americans are more likely to reap the protective benefits of public religious involvement and private religious practices than older whites (Krause, 2002b). In his research on older adults’ views about death, Cicirelli (2002) addressed racial and gender differences, as well as the effects of class, educational level, and marital status. The persons who had the greatest confidence in the existence of a loving, forgiving God and an afterlife were African American women, all of whom were categorized as having low socioeconomic status.
Like many studies of religion and aging, Cicirelli’s sample was primarily Christian.
One aspect of diversity among older people needing more attention is in the area of religious diversity. Although most studies of older persons’ religiousness use samples of Christians and Jews, one notable exception is the work of the late psychologist L. E.
Thomas. He compared the religious worldviews and spiritual maturity of British Anglican men and Indian Hindu men (Thomas & Chambers, 1989; Thomas, 1994), concluding that the religious worldview of the Indian men provided both an individual and a cultural ground of meaning that was lacking in the British men’s lives. Thomas (2001) later studied elderly Turkish Sufis in order to test Tornstam’s (1994) theory of “gerotranscendence,” which suggests that with aging comes increased life satisfaction due to a shift to a more cosmic, transcendent view of life compared to an earlier focus on pragmatism and materialism. Thomas concluded that Sufis high in gerotranscendence also showed high life satisfaction, but he also noted that persons can have high life satisfaction without experiencing gerotranscendence.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF AGING
The call by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) for a multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm for the psychology of religion comes at an important time for continued theoretical development and empirical investigation of religion and aging. The psychological level of analysis has been largely absent from studies of late life religiosity and spirituality primarily because sociologists have conducted most of this research. Thus, the last section of this chapter briefly suggests how knowledge accrued from studies of the psychology of aging can contribute to a psychology of religion. In addition, this section argues that research-ers studying cognition and emotion in older persons need to be informed by the work of psychologists of religion.
We now have considerable evidence regarding changes in the cognitive abilities of older adults and the person-and situation-specific factors that influence these changes (Wilson et al., 2002). However, there has been little effort to address the implications of these changes for religious life. For example, we know that older persons often experience difficulties with explicit memory for recently learned material as well as age-related declines in working memory. Whether this has any effect upon the ways elders’ process information in public religious activities like worship or in their private devotional lives has not been empirically investigated.
Frail persons often experience a diminution of cognitive resources, but they too can retain connection with the sacred. An example is a woman in her 90s who stated that she used to think about God, wondering if her behavior was acceptable, and musing over difficult and complex theological issues. Now, in very old age, she said, “I can’t do much any more and I can’t even think much, either. I forget a great deal.” But she went on to state that she believed that her days spent looking out her window andappreciatingthe world were a deep expression of her faith. “Am I neglecting God because I don’t think about him or talk to him any more? I don’t think so. Some how, I feel that my looking and loving is enough for God” (Thibault, 1993, p. 93). Her minimally cognitive experience of appreciation compensated for her lost ability for theological inquiry. In order to understand whether this woman’s experience is normative in very elderly, frail persons with deep faith commitments, psychologists of religion need to collaborate with psychologists who study aging and cognition.
In addition to the need to study effects of normal and disease-related cognitive changes on religious beliefs and practice, researchers should pay closer attention to changes in the organization of thought that come with age. For example, Sinnott (1994) has written that spiritual development in later life should be addressed in light of theoretical developments in the area of postformal thought. Two necessary skills for this type of thinking are “cognizance of interpersonal cocreated reality . . . [and] knowledge of how to rise above a series of conflicting truths to choose among them” (p. 93). Although Sinnott suggested a number of testable hypotheses on postformal cognition and spirituality in 1994, researchers and funding sources invested most of their time and resources in studies of religion, health, and well-being.
The characteristics of postformal thought depicted by Sinnott relate to certain work on moral reasoning and decision making, another area of research that has received far too little attention from psychologists who study older persons. There is some evidence that older persons may decline in their ability to take the moral perspective of others and to think in a complex way about other persons’ situations (Pratt, Diessner, Pratt, Hunsberger, & Pancer, 1996), but whether this might be affected by active engagement in religious activities is unknown. Much work is needed on the impact of religious faith on social-cognitive processes. This is a prime example of how knowledge from the psychology of religion could contribute significantly to understanding older adult functioning.
Another example concerns our lack of knowledge about how religious fundamentalism affects social cognition in older persons. Pratt, Golding, and Hunter (1983) have sug gested that older people show “increasing philosophical reflectiveness” (p. 286) in their moral judgments, but we do not know how they might be influenced by religious fundamentalism.
Research by Laura Carstenen and her colleagues has shown that emotional salience does not decline with age (Carstensen & Turk-Charles, 1994), but that older adults become more selective about their social interactions as a way of regulating emotion (Carstensen, 1992). Socioemotional selectivity theory has been supported by research showing that older adults feel emotions no less keenly; however, they make decisions about the persons with whom they will interact and the situations in which they place themselves where emotions may be elicited. This could be one explanation for the findings of Idler and Kasl (1997a, 1997b) regarding the continued religious attendance even by older people with serious disabilities. Idler and Kasl suggest that positive emotions elicited in worship and the emotional support received from fellow congregants represent powerful motivators for religious attendance. Sometimes when older people are ill, the weather is bad, or transportation is unavailable, they stay home and listen to religious services on the radio or watch them on television. In other words, they are still selectively optimizing their experiences but with a form of compensation. This description reflects the metamodel of “selective optimization with compensation” developed by Baltes and Lang (1997) to describe behaviors related to older people’s everyday functioning. Much more work needs to be done in order to get a richer picture of older adults’ motivation, emotion, and social behavior in religious settings.
Patterns of specifically religious emotions in older persons also need to be investigated, particularly in relation to responses to stressful situations. Although Pargament and his colleagues have written several papers applying his theory of religious coping to clinical work with older adults (Devor & Pargament, 2003; Pargament, Van Haitsma, & Ensing, 1995), and have often included older people in their studies, we lack a body of research bringing what is presently known about late life emotionality together with the psychology of religious coping. Again, this is an area where the psychology of religion—especially the psychology of religious coping—could make an important contribution to gerontology.
An indication of the potential for this kind of cross-fertilization between research areas is found in a study that showed a strong relation between “hardiness” in older people and religiosity (Magai, Consedine, King, & Gillespie, 2003).Hardiness was defined as the ability to engage in activities of daily living; some persons display a physically robust,“intrinsic” hardiness, while others demonstrate “earned hardiness” despite their physical decline. Persons in the latter group cope adaptively with multiple health challenges and other adversities. Religious faith strongly contributed to this kind of hardiness. In addition, persons who showed high levels of negative emotion were less likely to manifest either type of hardiness. Does this mean that religious faith and participation might support positive emotions? As suggested by Idler and Kasl’s work, religious participation not only can provide multiple sources of positive emotion, but the faith that motivates people to engage in this behavior also offers support for regulating and coping with negative emotions (McFadden, 2003).
Beginning in the 1980s, evidence emerged that older adults spontaneously mention religious coping far more often than other forms of coping with major life stressors (Koenig, George, & Siegler, 1988). As McFadden and Levin (1996) noted, religious coping points older persons toward the protective haven provided by a secure relationship with the divine; likewise, those secure relationships provide the base from which elders can venture into daily life with its many challenges and threats. Kirkpatrick’s (1992) theoretical and empirical contributions in showing the application of attachment theory to religion demonstrate how work in the psychology of religion can suggest new lines of research on late life religiosity. In addition, researchers need to attend to the attachment dynamics expressed by some persons with dementia whose behavior in religious settings indicates their continued ability to connect emotionally with the transcendent.
Several recent studies have shown that the social support found in faith communities significantly contributes to physical and mental health (Krause, 2002b; Nooney & Woodrum, 2002). Often these communities are viewed as familial, and in some, fellow congregants refer to one another as “sister” and “brother.” Thus, in addition to an emotional attachment to the sacred, older persons may develop emotional attachments to their faith communities, attachments that provide succor in times of trouble and courage to resolve problems, grow spiritually, and experience joy in late life (McFadden & Levin, 1996). This is an area wide open to future research.
Finally, some have suggested that later adulthood may be a time when people can become more open to emotional experiences of the transcendent, even to the point of mystical experiences (Atchley, 1997), but little systematic study of this possibility has been done. This represents yet another area in which collaborations between gerontologists and psychologists of religion could be very fruitful. In addition, the emotions evoked by art, music, drama, poetry, dance, and other arts that point elders toward the sacred have not been widely studied, although recent evidence from Wuthnow’s (2003) research indicates that people interested in the arts also are more likely to be interested in spiritual growth. Given the intense interest in the arts expressed by many older people, as well as the recognition by some continuing care retirement communities of the importance of providing high-quality arts experiences for residents, it would seem reasonable to expect that for some older persons the arts represent an important pathway to religious emotion and meaning.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
The multilevel, interdisciplinary paradigm for the psychology of religion proposed by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) has the potential to bring the psychology of religion into conversation with gerontology to form a relationship that can benefit both fields. Gerontology has embraced this paradigm since its inception in the middle of the 20th century. A few gerontologists have always shown some interest in religion (e.g., Maves, 1960), but it has only been in the last two decades that research on religion and aging has become more widely accepted in the field due to the use of multidimensional measures, national probability samples, and more sophisticated designs and analyses. Sociologists conducted most of this research, but, as this chapter has demonstrated, there is much work yet to be done by psychologists of religion. In addition, philosophers, theologians, artists, and others representing the humanities need to be brought into the conversation in order to understand more fully a time of life uniquely “colored by awareness of a powerfully ambiguous future” (Rubinstein, 2002, p. 39).
William James never explicated his reasons for calling late life the “religious agepar excellence,” but perhaps he was thinking about the way aging illuminates existential questions about the meaning of longevity along with religious questions about ultimate meaning. Students of the human lifespan generally agree that aging produces both growth and decline of adaptive capacity (Baltes, 1987). However, individual, cultural, and cosmicmeanings that might grant some coherent perspective on the melding of gain and loss in old age have been severely eroded (Cole, 1992; Moody, 1985). Thus, the contextual backdrop for the research and scholarship reviewed in this chapter has been characterized as postmodernity, a period of profound uncertainty about the value and meaning of old age (Polivka, 2000).
As the 21st century opens with anticipation of so many people living longer, the issues addressed in this Handbook will become increasingly important for understanding older adults’ responses to late life challenges. For many, but certainly not all older people, faith communities, religious beliefs, and experiences of the sacred will contribute to life quality and meaning. As the “longevity revolution” continues through the next 50 years, psychologists will need to employ multilevel, interdisciplinary approaches in order to understand more fully the varieties and the fruits of the “search for significance” in old age and how that search is “related to the sacred” (Pargament, 1997, p. 32).
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