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. —David Hayward
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.
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."
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."