SF #019

This material has been developed by and is presented by The Sandwich Generation (r)


The Spiritual Dilemma of Old Age

by Carol Abaya, M.A.


I left New Jersey for the annual conference of the American Society on Aging, frazzled and tired from finishing up the latest issue of The Sandwich Generation Magazine and trying to balance increasingly more serious parent care issues.


With this series in mind end of life issues I spent the first day attending programs dealing with spirituality. These were discussions on ones inner self and beliefs and were not specifically religion oriented. Speakers focused on historical perspectives of aging shown negatively in Western art, sculpture and literature as well the need for everyone to be spiritual.


The second morning, Sunday, was spent at a spirituality program which began with a Musical Prelude, including a mass by Bach, a Gregorian chant and Turkish Sufi music. This was followed by Buddhist prayers, American Indian chants and soaring singing by the Nashville Baptist Church Choir


Everyone attending left awed and more importantly with an inner sense of peace. Everyone shared the same feelings with each other. It was marvelous! Why so?


As one ages, one loses so much. Perhaps the gaining of self spirituality and peace will help balance the downside of the ever increasing life cycle. Spirituality is important for everyone, regardless of age.





for the Elder AND Caregivers


Everyones life cycle is different, yet the same. A contradiction? Yes! A dilemma for families and society? Yes!


The patterns in the life cycle were discussed by various speakers at the American Society on Aging Conference, and while the words used were different, the theme was the same.


While everyones life cycle goes through various styles, Monsignor Charles Fahey, of Fordham University, says that everyone ends up in the same stage of life from which one begins. In Faheys First and Third Stages, everyone is dependent. In the Second Stage, people are interdependent.


The Third Stage is the challenge. There are more aged dependent people alive today than ever before in history, Fahey notes. Every retiree is economically dependent on dollar transfers from social security, savings and return on assets. Older people are also more dependent on others for various services.


Fahey notes that society sets expectations and social acceptability during ones lifetime at least up to the Third Stage. At that point life extension elements (human and medical interventions) come into play. Also, there are no game rules for the Third Stage.


In the First Stage, patterns of responsibility are established as dependency lessens. In Stage 2, relationship patterns have been established and come into play. There are socially constructed parameters, which are always being reconstructed. However, there is no social construction (parameters) for the Third Stage, old age. There is no social policy or philosophy. There is no developed set of values.


The Spirit


While spirituality, defined as a special attitude or frame of mind, is important in every stage of ones life, it has special meaning in the aged. In Stages 1 and 2 (infancy to adulthood and adulthood to mature adulthood) a person has happy situations to look forward to. As life begins to wind down and then either goes down in a slow roll or is steam rolled, feelings may become ambiguous and confused. And society, both historically and today, hasnt helped people deal with this. Society places great emphasis and importance on youth, on being slender, healthy and spunky, all of which supposedly equate with happiness.


Rick Moody, Acting Executive Director, Brookdale Center on Aging, Hunter College, notes that western societies have never held a positive image of old age. He notes that art and sculpture have always depicted the old in negative overtones showing the old as decrepit and unhappy. He describes life as a woven fabric with old age being the back side. He compares the Eastern and Native American outlook of life as an ever increasing circle to the western concept of a linear life.


Nurturing the Spirit


Whether one looks to religion for solace or the more general meaning of spirituality, Tom R. Cole, a Professor at the University of Texas, in Galveston, says, God dwells wherever man lets him in. Everyone needs to know the divine spirit within ones soul. And he urges everyone to harness the divine powers within us.


From Jewish tradition, Cole notes that life is precious and should be viewed as a spirituality journey and the fulfillment of existence.


Relating his thoughts to Faheys three Stages, Cole defines his own three life periods.


Jane Thibault, Associate Professor of Family & Community Medicine, University of Louisville School of Medicine, adds to this philosophy, the four core human needs, which continue through life.

  1. Protect and nurture the body
  2. Need to love and be loved
  3. Need to pave a place in society
  4. Relationships with God or some belief beyond self


Thibault talks about old age and suffering (actually suffering at any age) and refers to the New Testament Gospels. Guidance here can be helpful to caregivers and family members of those facing the end of life. Accordingly,

Thibault says that one evil of suffering is that people are pulled into ones self and lose connectiveness. We become self-centered rather than other centered. At the same time, she says, People can continue to contribute to the well-being of others even when they are totally dependent on them for all of their needs. We can use the energy of our suffering to help others who are also suffering.





question and answer


Religion: the service or worship of God or the supernatural; a system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.


Spirituality: sensitivity, or attachment to religious values. Also related to spirit mental vigor, animation, special attitude or frame of mind.


Spiritual: essence of a human being


Spiritual well being: being healthy in the very core of a person


You dont have to be religious to have that special attitude or frame of mind, that inner peace of self (spirituality). Spirituality reflects on ones total being past and present. And everyone whether religious or not, has spiritual elements.


But because the spiritual idea is most often connected to a god or superior being, we interviewed three religious leaders who are actively involved with the elderly and their families.


Reverend Dorothy Lairmore has headed the First United Methodist Church in Jefferson City, MO, for three and one half years and was the Coordinator of Community Connection Volunteer Program sponsored by the Missouri Division of Aging. She is now retired.


Reverend Derald Musgrove was the National Coordinator for the Commission on Senior Adults for the General Council Assemblies of God in Springfield, MO. He is now retired.


Rabbi Samuel Seicol is Director of Religious Services at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged, Boston, MA, and past chair of the American Society on Agings Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging.


How would you define spirituality?


Lairmore: Spirituality is a persons connection to something that is greater than his or herself, and that something is what we usually call God.


Musgrove: I see spirituality as being keenly in touch with God and His will. Its not something thats easy to define. Im trying to live it.


Seicol: Spirituality is the internal sense of wellness, the sense of commonality among all people. In religious terms, it is that aspect of a person that is created in Gods image. Spirituality is the process of connecting to our sense of meaning, value and purpose to create a sense of identity.


Why is it important to the elderly?


Lairmore: The end of their life is approaching and a person needs and wants to know that his/her life is of value. The elderly want to feel connected to God and the Gospel stories as a means of confirming that their lives are meaningful and that they have a life beyond this one.


Musgrove: As people age, they lose control of what they knew in their lives. Spirituality gives them some security in knowing that despite physical frailties, they are significant. They need to know that they have a place with their home family and with God. There is tremendous security in this.


Seicol: For the elderly who have ben defined by society out of doing and becoming, the only place left is through their inherent value. It is important for the elderly to see how their spirituality can be in doing and becoming as well as in their value. For example, when people began living past retirement age, it became evident that there needed to be a new focus on how to keep meaning alive for active people.


Why is spirituality important to the sandwich generation and baby boomers?


Musgrove: Caring for an aging parent is one of the most stressful situations that a person can face. You need help from somewhere. God is a primary source. Making this change from child to caregiver is a transition, and change is never easy. How well people adapt depends in part on their personalities. There are feelings of guilt and anger associated with being forced to take on this new responsibility. These feelings are normal. Spirituality can help a person see the big picture and work through these feelings.


Seicol: Each person gives and receives a sense of self through their connections with others that can be family, community, society and the world. Family is the most intimate sense of connection and that does not necessarily include only members of what society defines as family. Many people find their sense of support from sources other than their blood relatives.


How does the difference in generational values impact spirituality?


Lairmore: I think that the baby boomers generation is more inclusive of who they think God is, while the older generation tends to be connected with the traditional church. Young people dont have the framework of a structured religion from which to get answers. Many do not know traditional Bible stories from the Old Testament; they dont have that sense of history to guide them. That leads to a wide interpretation of who the Other is, and such ideological differences can make it difficult for the generations to live together.


Seicol: It doesnt impact spirituality per se because that is inherent, but it may impact upon ones perception of pathways and opportunities for spiritual connectedness. The language is often different for different generations. Spirituality is a lifelong, human process. People dont become more spiritual as they get older, they just become more aware of the need for it as the coping mechanisms theyve used in the past become less appropriate and they have more time to confront the issues of their own spirituality. In the middle years we still need and want spirituality in our lives, we just dont always know where to find it. The search has brought more people toward normative religious institutions as well as to alternative pathways. They recognize that spirituality is so intrinsic that it has to be there the current generation is not taking it for granted.


How can caregivers help elders find inner peace?


Lairmore: You cant do it for somebody else; they have to want it for themselves. When you age, you become more of who you were as a young person you are more, not less, of yourself. If you were not a person of prayer when you were growing up, it is not likely that you will come into it as an elderly person. However, there are ways to put yourself in an introspective frame of mind. Meditating doesnt work for many people because they are afraid of the silence. But music really does help to relieve anxiety and allow you to be still with your thoughts.


Musgrove: By going out of their way to express their love for their parents. As Ive said, everyone wants to be significant in some way regardless of their age. You do this by letting them know that their memories, that what they have to say and feel are important.


Seicol: The bad news is that you cant. But you can share their search for it. And when you see that your parent has found something that gives him or her meaning, you can validate it instead of saying that its not the right way. The good news is that once you open your self to a broader perspective of the opportunities for spirituality, the more able you are to encourage others to find them.


How can caregivers get connected to their own spirituality when under stress?


Lairmore: Only by recognizing that they cant do it all. Sometimes, things need to be left undone. A person cant try to meet all of the needs of their careperson. They need to learn to be okay with their limitations and try to find support in the community to make up for the rest.


Musgrove: Its difficult. You need to deal with the stress by getting together with people to talk about the problems and share stories. You need to know that you are not alone. Talking to others helps to get yourself connected with your own feelings so that you can work through them and establish a sense of peace with yourself.


Seicol: When youre under stress is not the time to do it. People ideally should open themselves up to their personal, spiritual dimensions, pathways and opportunities to find the support before they get into that situation. If not, then they need to take a break in order to rejuvenate and reconnect themselves spiritually. There are ways for caregivers to become spiritual communities for each other by getting together regularly and sharing experiences.


The thing about spirituality is that the more we have, the more open we are to pathways of receiving it, and the more able we are to share it with others. Its like a smile it doesnt diminish when you hand it around.




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