Epiphanies of Senior Spirituality

Carole Johannsen

In the community hospital where I work as a healthcare chaplain, about one-third of the patients are over 70. When I visit, I ask if they would like me to contact clergy or a congregation for them. Many older patients, even if they indicated a religion for the record when they were admitted, have no one to call. I assure them that it doesn’t matter to me unless they want to discuss it, and often they do. What I hear are stories not about people who lost their connection with religion because of some slight or because of changes in liturgy or denominational teaching. They just drifted away. And why not? Their spiritual needs were not being met – were not, in fact, even recognized.

   The older I get, and the more I spend time with elders in my work, the more I am convinced that even though we certainly never outgrow spirituality, we might outgrow religion – at least organized religion as it is offered to us today.1

   Case in point: because I was working on a doctorate in spirituality and aging, some of my clergy colleagues asked me to spend part of a monthly  meeting discussing my subject and my passion about it. I began by asking how many of them had more elders in their congregations than children. Most raised their hands. I asked how many of them had curricula or programs for teaching the children about our faith. All raised their hands. And how many had programs or even discussion groups to help the elderly deepen their spiritual lives? No hands. No surprise.

   In my experience, faith communities give little attention to the spiritual needs of elders. They may host luncheons, provide rides or visit shut-ins, all of which are needed and usually appreciated. It is no small thing to continue to receive sacraments, join in community prayer, or study Scripture with others. But I believe more is needed. Just as children and teens need age-appropriate spiritual support, so do elders. The lack of it can lead to the spiritual weariness I see in so many hospital patients.

   Add to this the cultural burden put upon the elderly that they are no longer “productive” once they’re no longer working or raising children. If we feel unproductive, where is the meaning in our lives? Therein lies that greatest of spiritual malaises: meaninglessness. The pain of it attacks in the middle of the night when there are no distractions, and it is debilitating. 

Peggy Lee and the Vedas

   I am an Episcopal priest whose work gives me deep satisfaction. I minister to sick people, their loved ones, and their caregivers every day. Some of my work is sacramental, most of it is pastoral, and for all of it, I am thankful. 

   I am also an elder, age 71 and counting. And I wonder: what about when I retire? What happens as I lose physical strength? Have I already experienced the best of life? I resonate with the words Peggy Lee sang in the 1960s, “Is that all there is?”2 I hope not.

   What else then? Writers as long ago as 2000 BCE understood that every stage of life had its particular role, both practical and spiritual. The Vedic writers on the Indian subcontinent laid out a system of four stages of life. These stages, or ashrama, were limited to men of a certain status, but their application stretches beyond that time and those men. 

   The idea was simple. In stage one, the student, or brhamacara, studied with a guru to learn the writings of his people and all that he needed to know to be a householder.

   In stage two, a man became a grhasta, a householder, who was expected to rise in his profession, be visible in his community, produce children, worship the gods, enjoy sex and other pleasures, and gain wealth because the householder had to support himself and his family through the other stages.  

   When his last child became a householder, the man could leave his responsibilities and enter stage three – become a forest-dweller, a vanaprastha. Now the man, with his wife if they so chose, could begin to let go of worldly goods, take time to reflect on what had been, perhaps study what he had no time for previously. This third stage was part of the plan, not just the fallback position of an aging body. His physical condition, his station in life, his spiritual yearnings were directed toward downsizing, turning inward, making sense of it all.  

   I would argue that these three stages apply in our culture as well. (The fourth Vedic stage relates more specifically to Hindu belief in reincarnation.3) The main difference is that we do not engage the third one – the forest-dweller phase – as a new and welcome set of tasks particularly suited to that aging body and a mind full of memories. It is a time for storytelling, not just to reclaim momentarily our younger days, but to examine and evaluate them, to grieve and to celebrate.  

Modern Variations

   Twentieth-century psychology expanded on the Vedic stages, again stating what should be obvious: that the human being grows and develops from birth to death, and that each stage of growth is different from the others in its needs and its gifts. Carl Jung wrote:

   A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning. … Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning – that is, the aims of nature – must pay for so doing with damage to his soul just as surely as a growing youth who tries to salvage his childish egoism must pay for this mistake with social failure.4

   After Jung came developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson, whose eight Stages of Life, set out in his 1950 book, Childhood and Society, laid the foundation for modern studies.5 Erikson’s stages cover a lifespan, with each stage defined by the use of contrasting words that indicate either a successful passage through the stage or an incomplete one. For the eighth stage, Maturity, the contrast is “Integrity vs. Despair.” In this stage, a person either accepts her life, with all its mistakes and blessings (Integrity), or finds the past not only unacceptable but realizes that death is on the horizon and there is no time for do-overs (Despair). The move toward Integrity is spiritual work. Looking back, taking stock, giving thanks, knowing shame, reconciling where possible and forgiving when necessary, oneself as well as others, and accepting God’s forgiveness – all this is the work of the human spirit collaborating with the human mind. Yet most elders are left to do this alone.

Life Review  

   Narrative psychologist Dan P. McAdams takes a slightly different tack, describing the life journey through personal stories, or myths.6 We are born into a family myth, he writes, that includes what the family knows about itself: where it came from, its place in the neighborhood, the foods it eats, the worldview it espouses. Not until late adolescence do we begin to separate and form our own personal myth, built on the foundation of the family myth but veering off according to our personal preferences. Early adulthood is spent integrating our various selves into the myth as a professional, spouse or partner, parent, citizen, man or woman. By middle age, we are concerned about our legacy. Have we done enough? Will we be remembered? What will we pass on through our efforts and our DNA? 

   The final phase in McAdams’ scheme, the post-mythic, occurs when the end of the story is almost in sight. Now the work is not about refining the myth, but about examining it – what clinicians call life review. Referring back to Erikson’s “Integrity vs. Despair” stage of life, McAdams suggests that the myth is now a gift to ourselves, to value or not. “To experience integrity is to accept the myth with grace. To experience despair is to reject the myth as unworthy.”7

   The purpose of this vital period of an elder’s life is to review, understand, and accept – doing so, ideally, within community. For the faithful person, this assessment must include one’s relationship with God. For the non-theist, it might involve a connection with creation. It is spiritual work, and organized religion could, should, assist it.

Workshop Revelations

   I applied these ideas from the Vedas as well as Jung, Erickson, and McAdams recently with two groups of elders who joined me in a demonstration project for my thesis.8 One group lived in a Quaker-run senior facility on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. The other resided at Morningside Gardens in New York City’s Harlem. The participants were Christian, Jewish, atheist and agnostic, white and African American, middle class and affluent, mostly college educated, several with Ph.D.s. 

   We began by writing spiritual autobiographies. I asked them for two or three pages that roughly described their journey with God or the creation, nothing too elaborate or meant for publication. This was a new process for most of them, but a deeply satisfying one, especially when they shared their stories with the group. The exercise established a bond of trust, honesty, and affection over the course of the workshop.

   The next step involved forgiveness. Between sessions, each person was asked to make a list of three people they needed to forgive, and three things for which they needed to forgive themselves. The consensus was that this was the most difficult work they had to do in the workshop. One person commented that it was made easier only because he was aware that other group members were struggling through this as well – not unlike the mutual support of a 12-step program. 

   From there we turned to their legacies. Of what were they most proud in their work and in their lives? How well had they integrated their knowledge and skills with their values and beliefs? What had they done that made a difference? Then, having inventoried the past, they were asked to write an ethical will, a letter to someone who would outlive them, stating what they most wanted to pass on out of their own experience and faith.  

   Although I had not incorporated end-of-life into the original workshop design, assuming they could access the abundance of material found elsewhere on that subject, my groups wanted to discuss their dying and death. This was very much present in their thoughts; it could not be left out of their self-assessment. So we worked on it, not with anxiety but with creativity and even humor, answering questions like, What do you want to hear and see when you’re dying? (My grandchildren’s voices – laughter – someone reading Tillich to me – the sound of the ocean – surround me with books – the faces I love – have my dogs nearby.) We planned where our funerals would be held (in a church – in my studio – on the dunes at Fire Island). We planned the liturgies and even the food and background music for the receptions to follow. We chose Scripture readings and poetry and hymns and jazz pieces and the clothes in which we would be buried. We made our departures our own and committed our plans to paper – together. Death lost quite a bit of its sting by the time we finished. 

   Finally, we collected what we’d done and discussed what this said about how we are living and what we still want to do, learn, be, and give back. The forgiveness issues would go on, now that those cans of worms had been opened. The ethical wills might be rewritten, the funeral liturgies revised, but now participants had time to do what they were created to do in this, the penultimate phase of their lives: reflect, reconcile, integrate, accept the life they’ve lived, give thanks for it, finish unfinished business, then enjoy a new freedom, a new openness to whatever is ahead.

   This workshop could be recreated in any faith community, where the fund of common beliefs has the added advantage of enhancing discussion. What matters is taking seriously the idea that elders are still growing spiritually, and they need support and connectedness to do it well.9 

   A friend of mine, the former executive director of a large community senior center, readily admits he tried anything just to get older people in the door of the center and connect with other elders. “We are not meant to grow in isolation.”10 Amen to that.

   Out of this spiritual process comes wisdom. Regardless of common folklore, evidence shows that we do not automatically grow wise with age. Wisdom comes with the blending of knowledge and experience, seasoned with reflection and reconciliation. It is work to be done in community, and what better place than in a faith community. If only our faith communities would notice. 

The Rev. Carole Johannsen ’86 M.Div. is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New York and a board-certified healthcare chaplain. She received a D.Min. degree from New York Theological Seminary in 2013. During her ministry, she has been deeply involved in interfaith relations and education, and in 2011 was given an award “for her commitment to building bridges among our diverse faith communities” by the Westchester-based American Muslim Women’s Association.


1 I regard spirituality as the part of us that finds meaning in life and relates to that which is greater than we are. See also Philip Culbertson, Caring for God’s People (Fortress Press, 2000), p. 6: “Human spirituality may also encompass gatherings of family or friends, a good physical workout, meditation on a fine piece of art, or the beauty of nature. Spiritual wholeness requires repeated awakening and deliberate nurturing of the spirit, for as any other part of the wholeness wheel can atrophy, so can one’s spirituality.”

2 Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Is That All There Is?”. Recorded by Peggy Lee for Capitol Records, 1969. 

3 The fourth stage, sannyasa, is the time to release all ties to worldly things, to relinquish all attachments so that one can end the cycle of rebirth and become one with Brahman. Though this is particular to Hindu belief, the need to “let go” is not uncommon among people who are near death.  

4 C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934), p. 125. 

5 Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd Edition (W.W. Norton & Co., 1963), pp. 247-69.

6 Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (Guilford Press, 1993).

7 McAdams, p. 279. 

8 Carole Johannsen, Wisdom-Making: A Spiritual Job Description for Elders (2013), doctor of ministry thesis, New York Theological Seminary. 

9 Out of 40 surveys completed by elders during several presentations on spirituality and aging, the word that came up repeatedly in response to the question “What does spirituality mean to you?” was “connectedness.”

10 Samuel E. Deibler, former director of the Greenwich (CT) Commission on Aging.