By Lori Stevic-Rust
Spirituality is defined in a very inclusive manner, unlike religion, which tends to be defined by an institution or formal doctrine. The concept of spirituality embraces the notion of a deep connection to something bigger than oneself. It is often described as a way of loving and relating to others with integrity and compassion and tied to the concept of meaning and purpose in life. The spirit is traditionally believed to be that vital force within living beings that gives us vigor and energy and provides us with a sense of determination and courage. It can come from organized religious beliefs, a spiritual connection, and/or a focus of energy and attention on the present-mindfulness.
Scientists have concluded that religion and spirituality share a “sacred core” but have distinguished the two by suggesting that spirituality is more personal and emotionally experienced, whereby religion tends to be more taught and involves more organized behaviors (Koenig, McCullough & Larson, 2001). Regardless of the source, research is clear that those who view themselves as spiritual or holding a religious belief system tend to live more fully in the present, are more creative, and cope better with adversity.
While the search for purpose and meaning in life has plagued people for centuries, the aging process makes us more acutely aware of the struggle and leads us down a path of resolution. The process of this resolution can either leave us feeling exhilarated and renewed at the realization of meaning or empty at the inability to find meaning or purpose. Think about some of the language that we use when we talk about purpose in our lives. We refer to it as “something being missing.” While we may not be able to put a label on what is missing, we are keenly aware of an incomplete feeling. This feeling can be triggered when confronting a life-changing event, an illness or simply the aging process.
A reliance on spiritual beliefs seems to provide meaning and purpose for many, particularly for seniors. In fact, the majority of seniors over the age of 65 reports that they rely on religious beliefs to cope. Seniors with a strong spiritual belief system tend to experience less depression, are more actively engaged in life, recover faster from illness and surgeries, and tend to have a stronger immune system.
• Practice meditation. Mindful meditation has been shown to alter the chemistry of the brain by releasing the relaxation response. Just 15 minutes of mindful meditation a day has been shown to significantly improve cardiovascular health, immune function, and mental acuity and reduces stress. Many senior facilities have begun to offer yoga and meditation classes for their residents to improve overall wellbeing.
• Become focused on others. A dimension of spirituality is the feeling of connectedness to others — the willingness to do more for others than for yourself. Connection to others not only decreases loneliness but also improves our sense of meaning and purpose. When senior housing facilities extend themselves to charitable organizations in their community or establish partnerships, residents tend to become more engaged and socially connected. With connections and focus on others, rates of depression and physical illness are reduced.
• Share your wisdom. With years of aging and life experiences, we develop wisdom and perspective. Share it. Pass it on to different generations. This is a powerful spiritual building and life-affirming task.
Lori Stevic-Rust, Ph.D., is the owner of Stevic-Rust and Associates, a Willoughby-based practice that educates healthcare consumers through television, radio, print ads, books, and national speaking engagements. She is also a national consultant for Artower Advisory. CBC readers can forward questions or inquiries to her at email@example.com. Her website is doctorlori.net and her Twitter handle is @drlorimindbody.
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