“Old age is not for sissies.”
This quote, attributed to American actress Bette Davis, seems particularly apt in our society. In a country with a population where people 65 and older make up only 4 percent, our elderly face issues that are not for the faint of heart, such as poverty, abuse and neglect, sickness and disability, and loneliness and alienation from society.
Add to that existential and metaphysical concerns that come with old age—questions about death, the meaning of life, and the vast unknown beyond it. It’s enough to make any youngster glance up from their smartphones in bewilderment, or if they happen to be old enough to have experienced a life crisis, to reach for a shot of gin. But for the elderly, there is no escaping these questions.
“The aging years are as important as that of infancy or of childhood years,” writes UP Baguio assistant professor of psychology Prof. Maria Ana B. Diaz in her paper, “Expressing Religiosity in Old Age,” which she presented at the Growing Up, Growing Old: Times and Seasons 2nd Global Conference held in Prague, Czech Republic, in May 2016.
“Unlike children who look forward to being adolescents, who in turn project how their life will be as adults, and with the latter anticipating how life will be in old age, the elderly have no clear prediction of what it will be after old age or after life.” Being confronted with the prospect of dying is often at best uncomfortable and at worst frightening. “The loss of loved ones, failing health, and narrowing of the social network all lead to feelings of uncertainty,” Diaz continues.
However, when facing the ultimate unknown, the elderly have a source of solace to turn to: religion and spirituality. Diaz notes in her paper that studies have shown a strong link between faith, spirituality and health in the elderly, and that the anxiety experienced by the elderly dissipates when they have faith in a spiritual being to hold on to and to give them a sense of contentment and positive well-being. In fact, according to Diaz, it has been found that “spirituality and religious participation are highly correlated with positive successful aging, as much as diet, exercise, mental stimulation, self-efficacy, and social connectedness.”
For her paper, she focused on the experiences of several elderly members of the indigenous people from the Mountain Province, ages 60 to 73, with regard to religion and spirituality and how these help them cope with the difficult questions of aging. They made for unique subjects because they had two religions/spiritual traditions to call upon, having been both baptized into Christianity (Roman Catholic or Anglican) but also still adhering to their own traditional beliefs as indigenous people.
Diaz also distinguished between spirituality, or the search for significance and for a personal relationship between an individual and God or a supernatural being, and religiosity, which is adherence to certain doctrines and prescribed patterns of behavior. By and large, the elderly indigenous people (IPs) drew comfort from observing the religious practices of Christianity, resulting in “magaan ang loob” (i.e. a feeling of peace and lightness). These practices included attending Sunday services in a church or structure; providing assistance and prayer services to others; and, prayer.
Prayer also helps ease the “death anxiety” that comes with the experience of major life losses as one grows older, such as illness and the loss of a spouse or friends. “Older adults who have strong religious faith are more likely to feel good about themselves, to find more meaning in their life, and to cope with life’s adversities better,” writes Diaz.
Aside from Christian practices, the elderly IPs Diaz studied drew comfort from their indigenous traditions and pagan beliefs, which they continue to hold as equally important. “The individual develops a Christian faith that governs his thought and behavior,” Diaz writes in her paper, “but the individual belongs to a group that has strongly established customs and traditions that define their identity.” Adhering to their group’s goal of practicing and transmitting the indigenous tradition “gives them a sense of uniqueness, an identity that separates them from the rest,” Diaz explains.
But for the elderly IPs, the fact that Christianity and their indigenous beliefs have never been integrated, that one has never completely supplanted the other, gives them a wealth of resources to draw upon, especially when it comes to resolving the hard questions, such as one’s destination in the afterlife.
According to Christian belief, one merits heaven if one has lived a virtuous life, and hell if one has not. But life is rarely rendered in convenient black and white, but rather in complex shades of gray. Of her elderly IP subjects, Diaz says: “They ask themselves, where am I going? This means there is fear and uncertainty. So I think for majority of the case studies, yes, there is a fear of death.”
However, the IPs have a different concept of death, one that does not necessarily end with harsh judgments and sentences. They also value their elderly differently. In contrast to Westernized, mainstream societies that hold much store in productivity and the ability to work, the IPs value wisdom and experience, and hence accord a high status and level of respect to their elders. The older you are, the more valuable you are to the community.
From her interviews with the elderly, Diaz has gleaned some insights on how to prepare for one’s twilight years. One of her case studies, a retiree from UP, said that it is vitally important to be financially prepared for retirement. “Like it or not, aging brings with it a whole host of health problems so you have to prepare for it,” Diaz says. “You have to save money, invest money, so you’ll have something to draw from when you need to go to a doctor or buy medicine or hire a nurse.”
The other important thing to prepare for is to make sure your social relationships with family and friends are sound, because burning too many bridges and building too few can lead to loneliness and isolation in your later years.
Clearly, the sooner one begins to prepare for the senior years, the better. To do this, Diaz offers an important tool that can and should be used at any stage in life—the life review.
As a tool, the life review crosses from religiosity to spirituality, and bridges emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual health. It is the act of asking yourself the hard questions, hopefully before life itself forces you to, like “Who are you? What is the purpose and meaning of your life? Where have you succeeded and failed? What regrets do you have? What makes you happy? And how can you turn your life around now to make your death, whether it happens 50 years or a year from now, a peaceful one?”
Do a life review as early and as often as you can, Diaz advises. “You can’t postpone it until you’re already old. You shouldn’t cram for this, as if it were the finals in college.”
Old age and death are not pleasant subjects. Nor are regret and wasted time. But confronting old age, regret, and death with courage and clarity can lead to the wisdom of the ages. Even better, it can lead to new beginnings, no matter at which stage in your life.