Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Functional Limitations and Religious Service Attendance among African American and White Older Adults

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Functional Limitations and Religious Service Attendance among African American and White Older Adults

Article excerpt

Church attendance is associated with improved health and well-being among older adults, but older adults with functional limitations may have difficulty attending church services. This article examines differences in the association between functional limitations and church attendance in a sample of 987 elderly African American and white individuals. African American and white elderly people without limitations attended church at virtually the same rate (69 percent). Despite their higher scores on religiousness measures, elderly African Americans with one or more limitations were significantly less likely to attend church regularly than were white counterparts. Health status measures did not help explain older African Americans' lower attendance rates. Differences in attendance were associated primarily with educational attainment and cognitive functioning. The article recommends social work intervention to reduce barriers to church attendance for older adults who want to attend services.

KEY WORDS: African Americans; church attendance; elderly people; functional limitations


Religious participation and activities are positive resources for many older adults in solving problems and dealing with difficult life issues (Barusch, 1999; Cutler & Hendricks, 2000). There is evidence that religious participation is of particular importance for elderly African Americans (Black, 1999; Chatters &Taylor, 1994). Furthermore, religious service attendance appears to contribute to quality of life and good health for substantial proportions of elderly people (Levin, 1994; McFadden, 1996; Neill & Kahn, 1999) and may be of particular importance for older adults in poor health (Idler & Kasl, 1997). Research has also indicated that older adults with health limitations, people who could potentially benefit substantially from the fellowship and inspirational experiences that religious service attendance can provide, may find that their low functional status makes religious service attendance difficult (Idler, 1987; Koenig, 2002).Thus, some have recommended that social workers help elderly individuals who want to be active in their faith communities to attend religious services and other activities (McInnis-Dittrich, 2002).

The purpose of this study was to determine whether there were differences in the extent to which functional impairments affected religious service attendance among elderly African American and white community-dwellers. If such impairments affected African American and white older adults' religious service attendance differently, the study's second aim was to understand the reasons for these differences. Understanding such differences can help practitioners design more effective, evidence-based intervention strategies that are spiritually and racially sensitive to their clients' needs.

Many studies have found positive associations between religious service attendance and better health (see Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001, for a review). Researchers have reported these salutary effects in both studies of elderly African American and white people (Roff et al., 2004) and studies of African American older adults alone (Levin, Chatters, & Taylor, 1995). Several explanations link religious service attendance and better health. Krause (2002) pointed to the spiritual and emotional support elders receive from those in their congregations as well as to the optimism that churchgoers feel because of a close relationship with God. Service attendance may also contribute to good health because it promotes good health behaviors (Roff et al., 2005; Strawbridge, Shema, Cohen, & Kaplan, 2001). For many, religious participation is a critical component of successful aging (Crowther, Parker, Achenbaum, Larimore, & Koenig, 2002).

Idler and Kasl (1997) suggested that religious service attendance is especially important for the well-being of adults with health limitations. …

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