Does religiosity increase with age and proximity to death? What, precisely, are the spiritual needs of older individuals and how do they differ from the spiritual needs of other age groups? To what extent does religion assist individuals in coping with the challenges of advanced age? Such questions have preoccupied gerontologists since the founding of their discipline. See, for instance, the NIA's "Spirituality and the Elderly: Survey of Staff and Residents of Long-Term Care Facilities, 1998" study. Numerous resources can also be found at the Center for Aging, Religion & Spirituality at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Let's begin with Americans' self-reports of their religiosity and see how it varies by age. Using the combined 1973-98 General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, we observe a consistent increase in the percentage of Americans reporting to be "very religious" by age:
|RESPONDENTS' REPORTED RELIGIOSITY|
|STRONG||SOMEWHAT||NOT VERY||NO AFFIL.||ROW
Now, before any conclusions are drawn, recall that interwoven with these results are not only aging effects but the effects of cohorts and periods of measurement. Our data, in fact, are various snapshots in time, capturing different cohorts at various stages of the life-cycle.
PERCENT "VERY RELIGIOUS" BY COHORT AND AGE
From the bottom TOTAL row we can see how, indeed, the older the cohort the more likely its members are strongly religious. A certain portion of these cohort differences can be accounted for by age. On the other hand, observing those 60 years of age and older, observe how religiosity is greater the earlier the cohort. For instance, 45% of those born during the 1930s reported being very religious during their sixties compared to 53% of those born in the first decade of the century.
Looking down each column we can see the life-cycle changes in religiosity for the various cohorts. The percentage of those born during the 1930s reporting to be very religious increased from 37% when in their thirties to 45% when in their sixties. Observe that the largest increase in religiosity generally occurred between the time when individuals were in their forties and fifties, perhaps corresponding with parental death and full realization of one's mortality.
Click here for an analysis of how belief in an afterlife varies by cohort and religiosity.
So what difference does it make how religious individuals are in old age? Are strongly religious folks, for instance, happier? Does increasingly religiosity increase the likelihood of being very happy equally for those of varying levels of physical wellness? And does this vary by sex?
PERCENT "VERY HAPPY"
BY HEALTH STATUS,
& RELIGIOSITY OF AMERICANS 65 AND OLDER
Among the research questions that one can explore in this area: