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Religion - Functions Of Religion Among Older Adults

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Research findings such as those summarized above provide the who, what, where, and when of religion’s influence in the lives of older adults. With few exceptions religion has consistently been found to be an important source of meaning, coping, and adjustment with positive consequences for health and well-being. Understanding the how and why of this seemingly beneficial impact of religion is another matter altogether. The question that needs to be asked is what are the functions, characteristics, expressions, or manifestations of being religious or practicing religion that account for its being a protective factor? Or, in simpler terms, just what is it about religion that explains its impact on health and other outcomes?

Gerontologists have pursued efforts to answer this ‘‘why’’ question. A variety of sophisticated theoretical perspectives, frameworks, and models have been advanced to explain why religious participation is so vital for the well-being of older adults. For example, the sociologist Christopher G. Ellison discusses how religious participation benefits older adults by (a) reducing the risk of acute and chronic stressors, such as marital problems or deviant behavior; (b) offering institutional or cognitive frameworks, such as a sense of order, meaning, or coherence, that serve to buffer the harmful effects of stress and lead to successful coping; (c) providing tangible social resources, such as religious fellowship and congregational networks; and (d) enhancing personal psychological resources, such as feelings of worthiness. In addition, Koenig outlines ways that religious faith helps older adults who are suffering physical challenges by emphasizing interpersonal relations, stressing the seeking of forgiveness, providing hope for change, emphasizing the forgiveness of oneself and others, providing hope for healing, providing a context and role models for suffering, engendering a sense of control and self-determination, promising life after death and ready accessibility to God, and providing a supportive community.

Another approach to understanding the salutary functions of religion comes from a more epidemiologic perspective. Levin and the sociologist Ellen L. Idler, among others, have described those biobehavioral and psychosocial functions of religion that could account for its positive effects on rates of morbidity and mortality. The key here is to identify the factors that mediate a religion-health relationship—factors that, independently of religion, are known to prevent illness and promote health. These include healthy behaviors and lifestyles (promoted by active religious affiliation and membership); socially supportive resources (offered by regular religious fellowship); physiological effects of positive emotions (engendered by participation in worship and prayer); health-promoting beliefs and personality styles (consonant with certain religious and theological beliefs); and cognitions such as hope, optimism, and positive expectation (fostered by faith in God or a higher power).

In summary, religion is a key feature and salient force for good in the lives of older adults. Both public and private religious activity is common throughout the life course, and increasingly engaged in by older people. Attendance at worship services and the practice of prayer are especially representative expressions of religiousness. Research has identified age, gender, race or ethnicity, and other sociodemographic factors as important sources of variation in religious expression. Other research points to both organized religion and private or informal religious involvement as epidemiologically significant sources of protection against physical and mental illness and mortality. These findings can be explained by the salutary functions of religious participation, including the provision of personal and interpersonal resources and of a context and meaning for age-related changes in life circumstances such as health.

JEFF LEVIN

See also SOCIAL SUPPORT.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ATCHLEY, R. C. ‘‘Religion and Spirituality.’’ In Social Forces and Aging: An Introduction to Social Gerontology, 8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997. Pages 294–315.

CLEMENTS, W. M., ed. Religion, Aging and Health: A Global Perspective. Compiled by the World Health Organization. New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

ELLISON, C. G. ‘‘Religion, the Life Stress Paradigm, and the Study of Depression.’’ In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 78–121.

FECHER, V. J. Religion & Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1982.

IDLER, E. L. ‘‘Religious Involvement and the Health of the Elderly: Some Hypotheses and an Initial Test.’’ Social Forces 66 (1987): 226–238.

KIMBLE, M. A.; MCFADDEN, S. H.; ELLOR, J. W.; and SEEBER, J. J., eds. Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995.

KOENIG, H. G. Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years. New York: Haworth Press, 1994.

KOENIG, H. G. Research on Religion and Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

KOENIG, H. G.; SMILEY, M.; and GONZALES, J. A. P. Religion, Health, and Aging: A Review and Theoretical Integration. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

KRAUSE, N.‘‘Religion, Aging, and Health: Current Status and Future Prospects.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 52B (1997): S291–S293.

LEVIN, J. S. ‘‘Religion.’’ In The Encyclopedia of Aging, 2d ed. Edited by George L. Maddox. New York: Springer, 1995. Pages 799–802.

LEVIN, J. S., ed. Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

LEVIN, J. S.; TAYLOR, R. J.; and CHATTERS, L. M. ‘‘Race and Gender Differences in Religiosity among Older Adults: Findings from Four National Surveys.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 49 (1994): S137–S145.

MAVES, P. B. ‘‘Aging, Religion, and the Church.’’ In Handbook of Social Gerontology: Societal Aspects of Aging. Edited by Clark Tibbitts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Pages 698–749.

MCFADDEN, S. H. ‘‘Religion and Spirituality.’’ In Encyclopedia of Gerontology, vol. 2. Edited by James E. Birren. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 387–397.

MCFADDEN, S. H. ‘‘Religion, Spirituality, and Aging.’’ In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 4th ed. Edited by James E. Birren and K. Warner Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 162–177.

MOBERG, D. O. ‘‘Religion and Aging.’’ In Gerontology: Perspectives and Issues. Edited by Kenneth F. Ferraro. New York: Springer, 1997. Pages 179–205.

TAYLOR, R. J., and CHATTERS, L. M. ‘‘Religious Involvement among Older African-Americans.’’ In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 196–230.

THOMAS, L. E., and EISENHANDLER, S. A., eds. Aging and the Religious Dimension. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1994.

THOMAS, L. E., and EISENHANDLER, S. A., eds. Religion, Belief, and Spirituality in Late Life. New York: Springer, 1999.

TOBIN, S. S. ‘‘Preserving the Self Through Religion.’’ In Personhood in Advanced Old Age: Implications for Practice. New York: Springer, 1991. Pages 119–133.

RESEARCH

See AGE; AGE-PERIOD-COHORT MODEL; BIOMARKERS OF AGING; COHORT CHANGE; EPIDEMIOLOGY; EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE; DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY; FRUIT FLIES; GERONTOLOGY; LIFE CYCLE THEORIES OF AGING AND CONSUMPTION; LIFE EVENTS AND STRESS; NARRATIVE; NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON AGING; NEUROSPSYCHOLOGY; PANEL STUDIES; PERSONALITY; PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES; PRIMATES; PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSESSMENT; PSYCHOSOCIAL-BEHAVIORAL INTERVENTIONS; REACTION TIME; RODENTS; ROUNDWORMS; QUALITATIVE RESEARCH; SURVEYS; VETERANS CARE; YEAST

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