Ancestors, Elders, and the Role of Spirituality in Late Life

By Loretta Brewer.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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This paper explores the role of spirituality in late life in both eastern and western cultures. Narratives of Okinawan elders are used to illustrate their role in maintaining and transmitting spiritually significant practices to younger generations. In addition, the beneficial effects of spirituality are discussed as well as the process of spiritual development. Finally, a framework for assessing and addressing spiritual issues in late life is introduced.

Although the terms religion and spirituality are sometimes used interchangeably, they represent distinct concepts. As defined by Ortiz and Langer (2002), spirituality often includes religious commitments but extends beyond formal religious beliefs. In addition, ordinary life events can be charged with spiritual meaning. Religion, on the other hand, is a dimension of spirituality in its expressive form and can be public, private, or both.
O’Connell (1994) suggests elders are more likely to incorporate religious values into life meaning because they have had more time to explore religious traditions, internalize spiritual wisdom, observe the impact of religious and spiritual experiences in the lives of family and friends, and experience religion as an internal source of support as opposed to an external form of control.

It is essential that health and human service providers as well as others who care for elders consider their religious preferences and spiritual needs. The Spiritual Assessment Protocol, developed by Ortiz and Langer (2002), can be used in a variety of settings. Canda and Furman (2010) also provide guidance regarding spiritual assessment, including a framework for “implicit spiritual assessment” (p. 264).

Keywords: Elders, Spirituality, Religion, Assessment

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.37-44. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 545.104KB).

Dr. Loretta Brewer

Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, College of Nursing and Health Professions, Arkansas State University, State University, Arkansas, USA

Dr. Brewer joined the faculty at Arkansas State University after completing an Interdisciplinary PhD at Michigan State University. Current research interests include elder abuse, health disparities, and family caregiving dynamics, as well as cultural influences on family caregiving practices. Publications include “Families that Care: a qualitative study of families engaged in the provision of elder care,” Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 2002, 39:3, 41-56, and “Gender Socialization and the Cultural Construction of Elder Caregivers,” Journal of Aging Studies, Nov., 2001. In addition, she has presented papers at a number of conferences including “A Qualitative Study of Family Caregiving in the Mississippi Delta Region,” at the Southwest Social Science Association annual meeting, New Orleans, LA, 2005, and “Health Disparities and Family Caregiving Capacity,” presented at International Network: Towards Unity for Health (TUFH) conference, Atlanta, GA, 2004. In addition, Dr. Brewer has a strong interest in promoting the ethical conduct of social work research, culturally competent practice and the infusion of gerontological content into social work curriculum at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.