Life of prayer: Attitudes and beliefs about prayer evolve in old age
He said additional research has shown that if people believe other people are praying for them they do better in health outcomes. "So praying for someone really is contributing something to someone that really is beneficial," he said.
Praying for the welfare of others, the study found, wasn’t the only thing that increased with age. Participants also prayed more often for material things and their own well-being. Rather than shifting the object of prayer from one need to another, Hayward said, people increase all types of requests as they pray more frequently.
"We thought they would pray more and more for their own health (relative to praying for others), but that wasn’t any more true at 65 (years old) as it was when they are 95," he said. "Prayer is a very habit-related thing. People get into certain prayer habits early in life and they continue carrying out those behaviors, even increasing them as they gain a deeper understanding of what they are doing."
Eighty-four-year-old Rudolf Broennimann recalls praying with a congregation at the Swiss Reform Church he attended as a youth in Zuchwil, Switzerland. But it wasn't until he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he engaged in daily personal prayer and experienced its benefits.
"It is definitely a part of my daily life now," he said. "It has deepened my understanding and feelings, which were suppressed for many years. This is where you really go into the depth of religious experience, when you can go to your heart to feel for yourself and feel for others."
Broennimann's evolution was revealed in Hayward's study as respondents to the survey expressed a maturity and deeper understanding of their prayers and their expectations from the experience of communing with God.
"Although older adults did not change in their propensity to think their prayers were answered," the study said, "they did increasingly come to endorse the ideas that one must learn to wait for God's answers, and that God does not always respond to prayers in the expected way because only he knows what is best."
Hayward said more research would need to be done to discover why prayer expectations shift over the course of life from a desire for immediate answers to what researchers call trust-based prayer, in which those praying trust God will respond even if it's in a way they don't expect.
"It could be that people become more developed and nuanced. It could also be that people get more experienced in having their prayers not immediately answered," he said.
Mentoring younger generations
The study also theorizes that the increasing frequency of prayer among older adults could also be attributed to people resorting to a "secondary control strategy" as their resources dwindle and they "relinquish primary control in some domains of life."
But Virginia Broennimann describes her evolving prayer strategy a different way.
The 86-year-old former beauty parlor owner who raised three children calls herself a reformed "control freak" who said prayer helped her give up a need to control.
"Prayer is trust, and controlling is fear. And when you fear, you think you have to control everything or you think it’s not going to turn out right. That’s not faith," she said. "For me, prayer is freedom because I have to let go of control."
The insights of older adults on topics like prayer are not only valuable from a health care perspective, but also in learning how to maintain spiritual health within a religious group, said Wade Rowatt, a psychology professor at Baylor University who teaches about the psychology of religion.
He said research into the religious beliefs and practices of the elderly can serve as models for younger generations.
"One thing I value in the intergenerational nature of congregations is you can look to older individuals in a mentoring way," Rowatt said. "Some people are handling these life events with remarkable grace, and others are struggling, so it’s important to see how individuals respond and cope in what works. And these studies point to the idea that, like it or not, religion and spirituality seem to matter and work for a lot of people."
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