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Aging as a Spiritual Process
Posted in: Aging Well
In case you haven’t noticed it, we as a society are on the verge of a revolution. What some have called the “longevity revolution” is upon us. Kathleen Fisher, in her book, Winter Grace begins by drawing attention to the changing demographics. “In 1990 there were nearly 32 million persons in the united States aged sixty-five and older,” Fisher writes. “By the year 2020 that number will rise to over 52 million, and by 2030 it will include more than one in every five Americans. This phenomenon of a large aging population is clearly one of the most significant developments of our century. It affects each of us. We all have older parents, relatives, and friends. We are all aging ourselves.”
The aging of the population harbors many challenges and opportunities. For too many, aging has been viewed almost primarily as a biological process. We have countless media reminders that aging physically is the enemy to be fought with every available means, usually with the purchase of some “anti-aging” product. While there have been great advances in the study of aging, we tend to overlook the reality that the aging process is also a spiritual journey. Our whole life is a developmental movement, a journey, which is marked by various goals and accomplishments. As we enter the later stages of life’s journey, we become more concerned about meaning rather than money; purpose rather than possessions. These are spiritual matters that mark a sense of fulfillment in later life.
What do we mean by spirituality? The University of Maryland Medical Center defines spirituality as “a belief in a power operating in the universe that is greater than oneself; a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures; and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life and the development of personal, absolute values.” Even the non-religious may describe themselves as spiritual.
By that, they often mean “that life has a sacred dimension that can’t be reduced to formulas, rules, and numbers. …They believe we have hungers that can’t be fed by facts alone,” according to Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., in his book Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century: An Inquiry Approach. Both religious and non-religious have a longing for connection; connection with a divine being or even a connection with creation. In later years the quest for personal meaning becomes of greater importance.
The question then is this: How shall increasing numbers of people live their last years with meaning and purpose? Even when we take spirituality seriously, it is often viewed as one of many components of a well-balanced life. So it becomes one set of activities alongside the physical, social, intellectual, and emotional aspects of our life. Spirituality is not just one compartment of our life, but the deepest dimension of all that sustains us through the many challenges of aging:
• Dealing creatively with retirement
• Finding a purpose in life after our family is raised
• Finding meaning in the later years
• The struggle with the loss of a spouse
• Leaving one’s home of many years
• Making new friends
“It is precisely here that the need for a spiritual perspective is most acutely felt. Since spirituality is interwoven with all other aspects of life, we cannot fully treat human aging without attention to this dimension, especially where meaning is concerned,” Fisher explains.
Aging as a spiritual journey allows us to “focus on adding life to one’s years not just adding years to one’s life,” Gentzler says. Aging, rather than being seen as decline to be resisted can be viewed as a gift to be embraced.