Caring Currents

Helping Seniors With "A Soft Place to Land"

Last updated: Jan 01, 2009

It was around this time of year five years ago when I last pushed my friend Jessie from her nursing home to St. Mark’s Church across the street to a Saturday Mass. Wet and chilly. I recall Jessie, then about 80, gripping her wheelchair as we made a mad dash to the church.

Turned out this was Jessie’s last year of life. She was a strong soul, and, all things considered had an OK final few years – even with two broken hips, a move from her home to a nursing home, and generally declining health. She was sassy to the end.

I can’t help but wonder if Jessie’s faith helped keep her spunky. Yet another study was published recently showing a correlation between longevity and spiritual beliefs. In this one (part of the well-regarded Women’s Health Initiative), women who expressed religious feelings and attended services lived moderately longer than non-religious peers. As with much of the research on religion and health, the type of belief wasn’t a factor. Religion of any kind appears good for the health.

Spirituality is, of course, deeply personal. But there are ways people caring for seniors can help in this arena, I think; regardless of whether our loved ones are deeply religious or nonbelievers.  No one knows for sure, but the health benefits of religion are probably related to social connection and sense of community. As well as to ideas and beliefs.

Helping Jessie in this regard was easy; because she made her wishes clear. Always observant, she would have gone to Mass every day in her last years if she'd had enough volunteers to push her. (I met Jessie through a senior visitor program. She had no relatives, but an adopted “family” of friends and volunteers of every spiritual ilk.)

Other ideas:

For the more religious:

  • Help attending services, prayer meetings, or congregational social functions
  • Providing spiritual reading material; books, magazines, books on tape; even websites. (Reading out loud when appropriate.)
  • Arranging home/hospital visits with clergy or spiritual leaders
  • Arranging phone calls with clergy or spiritual leaders
  • Arranging visits with congregational members
  • Keeping your seniors' faith leaders updated on their condition

For the less religious:

  • Providing a sense of community through family and friends- if the senior is lonely or isolated. Sounds obvious enough, but this isn’t always easy, especially when people are far flung, living scattered about.  It can help to organize an informal care network, with a visiting or phone-calling schedule. Neighbors are often happy to look in on seniors. Check this article for more ideas about managing life as a primary caregiver.
  • Senior visiting and check-in organizations. Many wonderful community groups visit and assist seniors; particularly reassuring for long distance caregivers. To find them: Contact your senior’s Area Agency on Aging; easily found with’s local services tool. Helpful note: Some police departments also keep an eye on seniors.
  • Broaching heavy topics, such as end of life concerns. It’s not easy talking about death, but many people find relief in sharing their wishes for their funeral, burial, health directives, or related matters. Try bringing the subject up, gently -- see if you can get a conversation going. Let your elder take the lead. Listen. View this as creating an opportunity for the senior in your care to mull and express feelings, if she wishes.
  • Ask about talking with a chaplain or religious leader.  Many elderly find comfort in talking with clergy, even if they don’t follow a religious tradition. Chaplains provide nondenominational spiritual support, and are available through most hospitals to patients and their families. Most clergy -- of any faith -- will meet or talk by phone with anyone. Again, take your elder's lead on this. It’s not for everyone, but it may help to ask.

(For more on spiritual help around grieving and death, check this resources guide for the dying and grieving by our end of life expert Barbara Kate Repa.)

A last -- but not least -- thought: I was talking to a friend about the Women’s Health Initiative study and she laughed. “Not surprising,” she said. “Those women had a soft place to land.”  

Turns out, this is what my friends’ 90-something mother calls religion – a soft place to land.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I can stretch this to friends, family, a favorite TV comedy, a warm cup of  tea.