Formerly IGSW News | VOLUME 24 | SUMMER 2017

Issues and Views

In my opinion

People in Aging Services Need Training
About Clients' Religiousness and Spirituality

By Susan H. McFadden

Susan H. McFadden, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. She has written numerous books and articles on religion, spirituality, and emotion in later life and the implications for practice with older adults. The core of her work has been bringing together researchers and practitioners around these topics.

Susan McFaddenFor very practical reasons, people in aging-services professions must be able to talk about religiousness and spirituality—to recognize that many of our clients locate the most profound sources of coping strength in their faith. We can see that faith as a resource and, in some cases, as a burden. But, for good or ill, it is a significant part of many people's lives.

Religion matters to older people. Both qualitative and quantitative researchers have been telling us this for more than three decades. But often, in a variety of settings, the people working with older adults do not know how to talk about religion and thus feel anxious or uncertain about what to say when a client mentions it.

The research on older people's religiousness and spirituality has primarily focused on effects on mental and physical health. Other topics attracting attention—including resilience, prayer, gratitude, rationality, and religious coping—are also often tied to various health and well-being outcomes. For example, Lydia Manning found that spirituality is an important pathway to resilience. In her studies, participants' spirituality enabled them to create and sustain meaning in the face of challenging life circumstances.

Similarly, when older adults' values and sense of purpose are shaken by events or conditions, they may rely on religious coping. Kenneth Pargament and colleagues have identified various forms of religious coping and the circumstances under which they are most adaptive. These researchers have also compared the beneficial outcomes of positive coping strategies (like seeking spiritual support and feeling spiritual connectedness) with the maladaptive results of negative religious coping strategies (like the belief that God punishes people by causing suffering).

Implications for practice with older adults abound in such research. Both the positive outcomes like resilience and the negative outcomes of believing that suffering is due to God's punishment or feeling abandoned by God warrant attention from providers of healthcare and other services. Unfortunately, research has shown that some clinicians view all religious coping as pathological while others simply ignore the role, whether positive or negative, of religiousness in the lives of clients and patients.

The need for training. Just as members of the clergy seldom receive needed training in aging, as Bronwyn Keefe writes in this issue, so aging-services providers rarely receive education and training in various forms of religion and spirituality as related to their older clients. The providers could benefit from a deeper understanding of the complexity and diversity of religious and spiritual experiences and thus provide more individualized and sensitive care and treatment. The biggest beneficiaries would be their clients.

Photo courtesy Susan H. McFadden

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Copyright © 2017 Trustees of Boston University. All rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research, Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A.; e-mail: