Today’s generation is expected to live longer than any before it, and that trend will continue. As many of us know, especially coming out of the experience of the pandemic, people’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs start to change as they get older. In many ways, these needs are greater than they are for other segments of the population. And with the growing numbers of elderly people, we need to start paying more attention to serving them as a society in an effective and comprehensive way.
Numerous studies show that spiritual and religious engagement actually improves well-being, mental health and physical health. While there is debate over why that might be, there is little doubt that it is true. With a season of religious festivals – Ramadan, Easter, Nowruz, Passover, Vaisakhi and many others – approaching, this is a good moment for us to think about significance of spiritual experience for older people.
Perhaps the most important point is that our elders have the same right as any of us to the spiritual nourishment they might want and require. They cannot be an afterthought, or just be expected to be able to manage (let alone benefit from) the services, products and day-to-day life management that the rest of us can do so with ease. And why should they? They are their own people.
I and my colleagues have started developing materials, especially religious and spiritual ones, for children, in ways that are accessible, contemporary and meaningful to their lives. And it’s been hugely successful. Look at children’s books today in general. They are wonderful, and frequently involve themes about psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
We now need to start applying the same approach to the spiritual and religious needs of elderly people, people who are still capable but who also need a little assistance. The format and technology used for younger audiences will need to be changed if it is to be more accessible for older people. Digital doesn’t work for everything. We have to take into account the added need for clarity, large enough font sizes, ease of use, the joy of physicality and the elimination of confusion when we design such materials. The content, subject matter and approach need to be changed too, with more focus on solace, preparation, their role as elders, optimism, kindness and spiritual nourishment. We need more mental health prompts, more delight and joy, more engagement, more ways to contribute and more feelings of their value and purpose. Isolation and feeling worthless are key factors in deteriorating mental health in old age.
It is not enough – in fact I’d say it is downright disrespectful and shameful – to write them off as undeserving of this attention. We must not be ignorant or heedless of their needs; of dismissing their role in our lives as spiritual and religious beings; of not taking time to serve their religious needs, even if it takes a little extra effort. Perhaps you might say we don’t think that at all, and that enough is being done already. While this might be true in many instances, we need to check constantly that, whether through actions or a lack of attention, we are reneging on this intergenerational commitment.
I have been starting to explore this, and I see many families making such efforts to create change. But this tends to be done quietly and on an individual basis, where it all too often becomes burdensome. It should instead be collective effort, and a source of optimism that we can do better for our elders and, in turn, bring joy and fulfilment into our own lives. Sadly, it is too easy for society to forget that the elderly are important, have needs and should be offered as many avenues as possible to fulfilment. Why should an elder be left in the corner of a room, unable to hear or read content suited for them? We can and must do better.
If you’re not spiritual or religious, these principles still apply in serving the universal need for an inner-meaning and comfort that speaks directly to you. It seems so utterly obvious. But the biggest gaps and needs are the ones staring us in the face. And if I haven’t persuaded you that we should be doing this because a whole entire and growing segment of society is being deprived and overlooked, then let’s remind ourselves: We are all going this way too.