Expanding Lives: Research and Practice in Psychology, Religion

By McFadden, Susan H.; Ramsey, Janet | Aging Today, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Expanding Lives: Research and Practice in Psychology, Religion


McFadden, Susan H., Ramsey, Janet, Aging Today


Despite being surrounded by cultural images of eternal youth and the denial of mortality, most older people, as Carl Jung wrote, "know that their lives are not mounting and expanding." This knowledge does not mean, however, that they approach each day with dread, disgust and despair. On the contrary, vast numbers of older adults demonstrate impressive resiliency in the face of late-life challenges. Through their wisdom, love, playfulness and service to families and communities, they reveal the hard-won sense of meaning that can arise from accepting both the gains and the losses that accrue with age.

Of course, some people do struggle to attain the integrity of old age that, in the view of the late psychologist Erik Erikson, results from the acceptance of life's joys and sorrows. Others question whether life continues to have meaning when suffering accumulates. Concerns about dependency and the anticipation of death motivate older adults to take a hard look at their most cherished beliefs and values, a process that for many people occurs within the context of their religious faith.

WHY STUDY ELDERS?

Some might question why psychologists of religion should study older people as a special group. We believe that their life circumstances argue for research focused specifically on aging and older adulthood. Assumptions about the psychology of religious beliefs, emotions and practices and their effects on mental health, social attitudes and behaviors need to be tested with older adults. Expanding the purview of the psychology of religion to older adults is especially important given emerging recognition of the significance of a lifespan developmental approach for nearly all areas of psychology. In addition, by studying elders, scholars can provide important insights to practitioners in a variety of disciplines.

The link between religious and psychological practice is clear. When older adults are no longer able to attend religious services or when they are not visited regularly by clergy and lay ministers, crucial spiritual needs go unmet and social isolation is more likely to occur. This problem is increasingly prevalent for people ages 85 and older-the most rapidly growing section of the U.S. population.

In their essay "Growing Old in a Therapeutic Culture" (in Growing Old in Christ, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), Keith G. Meador and Shaun C. Henson question what it means to grow old in a world that demonstrates considerable optimism about life extension but fails to show people how to hold on to hope in the face of suffering and sickness, dying and death. They argue that a postmodern, therapeutic culture conveys and reinforces a shallow vision of well-being that places faith in the self alone. Moreover, they claim that even religious institutions have fallen under the spell of the "sick narcissisms of a therapeutic culture." Their jeremiad portrays religious institutions and the people who lead them as ill equipped to provide pastoral care and counseling because they have embraced shallow psychological narratives about late life as promising either perpetual health or utter chaos.

Although we agree with Meador and Henson that aging today occurs in a cultural environment of denial and fear, we believe it is possible to develop a model of pastoral care and counseling with older people that accepts aging as what Paul R. Sponheim of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., has called an expression of the fundamental reality of change. He views this period of life as a grace-filled time of both fulfillment and challenge. This approach can help older adults find opportunities for both a search for and a discovery of meaning, and it can encourage and support elders during difficult times that can lead either to despair or to a rediscovery of the redemptive symbols and the rites of their faith tradition. Above all, this approach to pastoral care and counseling is oriented toward hope, which replaces the false choice of either naive optimism or stark pessimism about aging. …

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