Life of prayer: Attitudes and beliefs about prayer evolve in old age

Published: Thursday, May 16 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

A recent study shows that the frequency, understanding and expectations of prayer evolve and mature not just between youth and old age, but also during the later years of life.

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Every morning, Virginia Broennimann wraps herself in a white velour robe, kneels on a pink crocheted prayer rug holding a picture of Jesus at her head, and engages in an hour of prayer and meditation.

Elsewhere in the airy condominium overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, her husband Rudolf begins his day by washing his face before he begins his daily prayer and meditation.

They pray together later in the morning for a list of people they believe need God's help.

"We do it six days a week, except Sunday, because that's when we go to church and pray there," Virginia Broennimann said.

The couple, now in their mid-80s, began this daily prayer ritual six years ago when they converted from a New Age church to a Christian faith that deepened their understanding and practice of religion, particularly prayer.

And their evolution is typical among older men and women who find that the frequency of prayer, their understanding of the practice and what they expect from their petitions to God changes throughout their senior years — not just from the time they were children or middle-age, a recent study found.

The study, published in the March issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, not only supports the long-held finding that most people become more religious as they age, but also sheds more light on how religious practice impacts health care and other lifestyle aspects of an aging population that is projected to grow in the next half century.

"Late life is not a time where people reach an end-state and stay there for 30 years. People are still going through important changes, and it is important for (clergy and caregivers) to be aware of that," said David Hayward, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study.

Staying connected

Hayward explained that the study on prayer among older adults is part of a larger project exploring the relationship between religious behavior and health. He and senior researcher Neal Krause have been tracking the religious practices and beliefs of a national sample of older adults for the past seven years. The sample now averages 80 years old.

The data are particularly relevant considering those 85 years and older are currently the fastest growing demographic worldwide, the study noted, and the number of centenarians is expected to increase tenfold by 2050 in the United States alone.

"We are laying groundwork for understanding how prayer might have a unique relationship with certain kinds of health outcomes at this life stage," he said. "This is the time of life when older people are having health problems and relying more on prayer as a coping mechanism."

The study also explained that prayer can also help people stay engaged in their social networks, which can also impact their well-being.

"As they age, individuals may find it increasingly difficult to repay help received from others by offering direct tangible assistance, and may thus instead pray more for others as a means of fulfilling their side of these mutual obligations," the study stated.

Hayward said the social networking dimension of prayer can have health implications as prayer becomes the one religious practice someone can do despite physical ailments that may keep them from attending church or serving in the congregation.

"Research shows older people who feel like they are giving support to other people do much better in terms of health outcomes," he said. "It makes them feel better about themselves because they are giving back. If they can pray for someone, that can be a very important way for them to engage in that reciprocal relationship instead of just being a burden."

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