Academic journal article Generations

Spiritual Intimacy in Later Life: Implications for Clinical Practice

Academic journal article Generations

Spiritual Intimacy in Later Life: Implications for Clinical Practice

Article excerpt

When my father died eight years ago, for some heartfelt reason, though the weren't observant I felt the need to say Kaddish, to make a connection, and came to my first Beth Israel Minyan. That was the beginning, my initiation into morning prayer and fellowship, an initiation that became a process-learning the service, the prayers, the songs. Our singing! Now that was revelation! Over the years I developed this certainty that every Monday and Thursday morning in Roanoke, God reaches out to Beth Israel Minyan, pulls our disparate voices up on strings, and creates heavenly melodies for the angels. Now I'm one-third of a breakfast triumvirate preparing bagels, lox, coffee cake, etc. for our loyal Minyanaires. We are proud that link by link, prayer by prayer, our Minyan has created a religious chain of belonging (She, 2000).

Any exploration of intimacy in the later years would be incomplete without looking at its intersection with spirituality. As the above passage about a minyan, or Jewish morning prayer and fellowship gathering, would suggest, spirituality is crucially important to large numbers of elders, yet is often neglected by both clinical and academic gerontologists. Spirituality creates, informs, and deepens many significant experiences. A sense of purpose, warm belonging, trustful sharing and increased human joy are among its benefits. As Natalie Sheffler describes so well above, "link by link, prayer by prayer," spiritual practice creates "a religious chain of belonging" that can serve as a powerful antidote for loneliness and despair.

Sheffler's words confirm what clinical practice and gerontology research in religion and aging have found-namely, that spirituality can be critically important to old people (Koenig, George, and Siegler,1988; Ramsey and Bliesznet,1999). Older adults today are highly interested in spirituality (Cornwall, 1989) and report more belief in God than do younger groups (Riley and Foner, 1968). Although as diverse as older adults themselves, spirituality in elders has some common dimensions: It is firmly anchored in religious community, it includes a full range of human affect, and it is commonly expressed in language that reflects the importance of interpersonal relationships (Ramsey and Blieszner, 1999). All three of these dimensions are particularly visible in the giving and receiving of compassionate help, help that occurs within the context of what Sheffler calls "comradeship," that is, intimate relationships with others.


Intimacy, one rewarding aspect of close relationships, is difficult to define, but it certainly contains elements of affection, trust, and connectedness. We satisfy the strong need to be intimate, often without much conscious attention, through a combination of brief interactions (Prager,1995) and through ongoing, "soulful" relationships with friends and partners (Moore, 1994). The intimacy of friends is one of life's real treasures and remains, at best, a mystery. Comments Chick, narrator of Saul Bellows (2000) recent novel Ravelstein, "there are no acceptable modern terms for the discussion of friendship or other higher forms of interdependence." Yet, to fully serve older adults, dinical gerontologists must attempt to understand and describe what intimacy is, what forces can prevent or disrupt this experience, and what interventions might facilitate its growth.

The term spirituality also escapes precise definition, since it signifies different things to different people. Here, it refers to a direct, lived experience of inner searching that also involves a dynamic, animated relationship with a sacred reality. Spirituality is not the same as religion, although a spirit-filled man or woman shares many of the same goals as a religious person. Spirituality can never be institutionalized and resists being described in purely objective language. Under its power, a person's highest goal is "not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments" (Heschel, 1951). …

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