Seniors and Spirituality: Health Benefits of Faith

A spiritual connection can boost seniors’ wellness, especially when their senior living community supports faith practices.

Spirituality is a significant part of many people’s lives, and it can become even more important as we grow older. A study by the University of Chicago found belief in god tends to increase with age, especially for those older than 68. Luckily for these spiritual seniors, faith practices come with a host of health benefits.

For example, spirituality can improve the quality of life for seniors with dementia. Practicing a religion can help slow cognitive decline and reduce or stabilize cognitive disorders, according to International Psychogeriatrics. The use of spirituality in daily life enables those with dementia to preserve relationships, maintain hope and find meaning.

“Dementia may seem to mask the need for spirituality, but the reality is that, from my experience, cognitive impairment does not eclipse our innate need as human beings for inner peace, comfort, prayer, and rituals,” says Sister Karen Kielb, a Chaplain at Mercy Retirement & Care Center.

Another benefit of spirituality is the strong sense of community that is at the heart of most faith groups. People form and strengthen relationships through their faith, whether it’s by attending group services or just praying with a friend.

Opportunities for social interactions are especially important to seniors, who are at risk of becoming isolated as they age. Staying social not only reduces loneliness and depression, but can also potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.

These social bonds can be particularly comforting during difficult times. Many seniors must cope with the loss of a spouse or loved one. Others might be grappling with their own illness or mortality. Faith can provide a support system for handling these tough issues.

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“For some residents, end-of-life issues might bring up unpleasant past experiences that may need to be reconciled in some way,” says Sister Karen. “Having a supportive spiritual environment can help minimize distress and move one toward acceptance and resolution.”

The benefits of spirituality for seniors are evident at Mercy. A full-time spiritual care team works to ensure that all residents’ spiritual needs are met, regardless of their beliefs. Community members practice a variety of faiths. Others don’t identify with a particular religion but consider themselves to be spiritual.

One such resident, Ann, lived at Mercy for 26 years. She didn’t adhere to any one faith when she moved to the Oakland assisted living community. Ann was originally very reserved and kept to herself, but soon flourished in the community’s accepting atmosphere.

“Because of our spiritual environment, I do believe that Ann thrived here at Mercy,” says Sister Karen. “I like to think that Mercy enhanced her life as she enhanced the lives of those here at Mercy, regardless of religious affiliation or faith expression.”

Stories like Ann’s are the reason that Sister Karen and the spiritual care staff strive to create an inclusive environment at Mercy. So all residents, regardless of faith, can enjoy the health benefits of spirituality.

“Some people here aren’t religious, some aren’t Catholic, some aren’t anything,” says Sister Karen. “To have an idea or a connection to something that they believe in offers hope and support, and I think adds to the idea of wellness of mind, body and spirit.”

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