Meaning and Belonging Can Stave off Isolation in Later Life
Richmond, Lewis, Aging Today
Depressing!" said Gladys, 74, when I asked her how she felt about aging. "I'm at the stage where everything is just falling apart." When asked whether her spiritual life was a resource, she just laughed. "I stopped believing in God when I was 12. In any case, I don't think He'd be interested in my petty little problems. Who would?"
Gladys' response highlights two factors my research has identified as key contributors to healthy aging-meaning and belonging. Gladys, who lived alone, was having difficulty finding meaning or contentment as she aged, and her lack of spiritual involvement was not helping. Gladys may have been among the 20 percent of elders (40 percent of those in care homes) who show symptoms of depression, according to the website Disabled World (www.disabled-world.com).
The value of belonging as a factor in healthy aging-particularly in a spiritual context-is even more pronounced. In Koenig and colleagues' Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001), the authors report that people who belong to a church or spiritual group or have an active spiritual life live, on average, seven years longer than those who don't.
Aging with and without Meaning
Meaning and belonging clearly support healthy aging, yet they can be elusive, especially for elders living alone or isolated from family and community. According to the latest U.S. Census, 32 percent of non-institutionalized women and 13 percent of men ages 65 to 74 live alone. For those 85 or older, the corresponding numbers rise to 57 percent and 29 percent. Some elders who live alone are happy and fulfilled, and would not want it any other way. Others whose lives are outwardly engaged are inwardly impoverished.
In my book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice (Gotham, 2012), I mention Sarah, who was 105 when I interviewed her. Since the death of her husband when she was 81, Sarah had lived alone, yet she had a rich and vibrant life filled with meaning. At 90 Sarah had taken up weaving, and by 95 she was a recognized master, showing her work in galleries and craft fairs and collecting awards. Sarah was one of those elders clinicians call the "extraordinary elderly."
In contrast, Greg was a busy corporate executive in his 60s-still working, with a wide circle of friends and colleagues, adult children, a large house and fancy car. Yet Greg was unhappy. "I feel so alone," he reported to me. "Nothing seems to matter. I'm sleepwalking through my life." He was under treatment for depression, but skeptical that it was doing any good. …