Geriatric Spirituality

Early in the last century, the specialty of geriatric medicine became an essential part of the American health system. It differed from the standard forms of medical treatment because it was directed toward the physical and psychological problems that are the unique maladies of elderly persons. These were not the same in kind or degree as those which afflict the ordinary adult. By concentrating upon the particular illnesses of those of advanced years, geriatric medicine would work to restore their health, and help them achieve a fulfilling and beneficial aging. It is interesting to compare this progressive medical development with the Church’s attitude towards elderly men and women, for which it has much to be commended. Considerable attention is given to meeting the physical needs of older parishioners, and it is done so with kindly compassion and care. Moreover, the elderly are generally honored and shown a respect commensurate with their station in life. But although these attitudes are indispensable, they are primarily directed toward the externalities of aging. The elderly are seen outwardly, in their physical presence; the indwelling of their personalities is either overlooked or assumed to be of little importance.

In matters of spiritual growth and development, old age, as such, has no unique meaning in the life of the Church. Pastoral practice has traditionally recognized two fundamental stages of life: youth and adulthood. A great deal of attention is directed towards the formation of the young. As the newest generation, they are open to the future and have a distinctive need for education and guidance in matters of Faith and morals. In the instruction of adults, family life remains of great importance, and the special responsibilities of parents towards their children are taken into account. Much of the spiritual direction given to those of middle years builds upon and refines this intergenerational connection. As for the old, they are not seen as being at a stage of life which presents distinctive challenges of spiritual advance or regression. Old age is recognized as a time of physical and mental decline, but it is not seen as a period of spiritual flourishing.

By the year 2050, the number of persons over seventy in this country will have increased more than 300 percent beyond what it was at the beginning of this new century. As longevity is becoming an extensive and common experience among the faithful, there is a need to reconsider the spiritual life of the elderly within the Church. St Paul’s description of himself in his older years provides a valuable point of reference. Paul had written that while his outer self was wasting away, his inner self was being daily renewed. (2 Corinthians 4). Few see that description as having any relevance to the situation of increasing numbers of Christian men and women now living longer lives in the modern world. There is little sense of growth in grace and love in the lives of those of advanced years. In their understanding of aging, clergy and laity alike tend to follow the ancient view that the maturity of elders is a virtually finished state. It is assumed that older men and women have already fulfilled all of their important obligations, and that upon those premises, the Church, in its pastoral care, should simply guide them to a peaceful preparation for the passage to eternal life. This attitude, while admirable, overlooks the Pauline understanding of advanced age as a time of inward rejuvenation and inner spiritual development. Current understanding of aging also ignores the basic teaching that life is an endless journey that is never completed on earth. Within each person, of whatever age, the struggle between good and evil continues until their final breath.

What are the possibilities of spiritual growth within the life span of those of advanced years.? To comprehend the potentials, one must first understand the limitations. The Ancients were acutely aware of the faults of the elderly. Aristotle thought that they were excessively fond of themselves, and preferred what was useful to what was noble. He also noted how those who are growing old tend to turn virtues into vices, like the good of frugality being degraded into stinginess, or prudence into timidity. Many other thinkers saw them as quarrelsome; talking too much, and not listening enough. Chaucer characterized old men as fruit that gets rotten with age. In The Canterbury Tales, he observes four basic vices among those in the final stage of life: boasting, fibbing, anger, and greed. Even theologians had a dim view of the character of the elderly. For Innocent III, physical degeneracy was matched by moral decline. He believed that the repulsiveness of man increases with age. (De Contemptu Mundi, 1189). And it has long been recognized that those who are old tend to be contemptuous of the present, and full of nostalgia for the past. An even greater difficulty has been the rise, with age, of a certain acedia, or sloth–not as an unwillingness to work, but a giving up on the development of life.

The perspectives on old age throughout Western history have not all been gloomy. Cicero noted the positive advantages that the elderly gain from the experience of living within themselves, as well as being liberated from the grosser passions. And, with the advent of Christian culture, St. Paul’s comments on inward renewal were being reflectively developed. The thoughts of Dante on the spiritual potentials of aging were especially enlightening. Having a concern with justice, he realized that in the earlier stages of adult life, our conceptions of this important virtue were fragmentary, and deeply affected by our emotional dispositions. However, the adulti maiores—those who have reached their most mature years—are able to bring the moral ideal into better and balanced focus. They are now in a position to understand the full complexity of justice. They see more clearly than ever before how its standards define the fair relationship between the individual and the community, as well as the rights and duties that individuals hold with respect to each other. They are able to grasp more completely than those younger than themselves what is due to the whole, as well as what is owed to one another. And, like Pope Emeritus Benedict, those of advanced years can comprehend the pursuit of the common good as the most inclusive form of love.

In Dante’s mind, older persons have reservoirs of goodwill and generosity embedded within them. Being affable, they can rejoice in the happiness of others, especially the progress of the young. The great poet uses the image of a rose to suggest the deeper powers of those of advanced years. Like the beautiful flower that cannot withhold its fragrance, men and women at advanced stages of maturity are unwilling to keep their goodwill enclosed within them. They desire to reveal the graces and virtues they have cultivated over a lifetime, and express them for the good of others. The challenge for the Church is to recover those deeper insights into the personalities of older men and women, and create ways to call them forth. That requires a greater recognition of the distinctiveness of the elderly. It must be understood that their inner vitality, and their moral and spiritual dispositions, are not identical to those usually to be found within the Christian community, while remaining part of orthodox belief. In the exercise of her enlightening guidance, the Church must attend to these personal depths of the faithful of advanced years.

The ideal spiritual “medicine” for the elderly is a wisdom guided by Charity. For such a ministry to be effective, it must try to correct the basic failures that seem to haunt the aging process. All of the faults recognized by tradition, as well as those of more recent origin, must be brought to the attention of those among the elderly who seek to reform their lives. Those who give them spiritual direction must help them in their struggles with selfishness, resentment, and inclinations to abandon the art of living well, in spite of their infirmities. They must learn anew to care for others—not only the young, but also for their contemporaries who often languish, alone and forgotten, in some nursing home or hospital. One of the most effective cures for the loneliness of aging is a genuine compassion for comrades and friends who suffer much more than oneself.

The possibilities of a loving old age have societal, as well as interpersonal, dimensions. Those of advanced years have a special responsibility in matters of public life. Their engagement is rarely that of activism, but it can be the expression, at appropriate times and places, of a considered opinion on matters of justice, and the common good. Yet, too often the political interests of the aging population are limited to matters of immediate self-interest, such as social security, health care, and other governmental programs that can be of assistance. These claims have their justifications, but if they are the only measure of political engagement of the aged, the general interests of the nation are ill-served. Such a limited interest breeds resentment among those of younger years, who often bear the financial burden of a disproportionate concern for the needs of “senior citizens.” Moreover, in this time of extremism, and of angry and divisive politics, there is a great need for calmer and conciliatory tones of discourse. Mature older men and women, who have their emotions under control, are especially suited to bring a creative civility to the public conversation.

The elderly must be encouraged to pursue the love of God through prayer and contemplation. More than any other age group, the elderly, with their unhurried lives, have undeveloped powers to carry out this sacred mission of the Church. In their personal solitude, they may plumb the depths of God’s indwelling love in ways that much of the faith community is too busy, or distracted, to approach. Continuous prayer gradually brings us closer to Him who is already close to us. Such a prayer life leads to an interior freedom that transcends the anxieties that trouble inner peace. And a deepening dependence upon Divine Providence gives the confidence that, with His help, the difficulties of growing old will not destroy our desires for happiness. As the time of terminus approaches, those who have grown old should reflect more deeply upon the fundamental foundations of the Faith that are expressed so succinctly in the Nicene Creed. They should take sincerely to heart the final phrasing of the Creed:

“…and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.”

Cornelius F. Murphy About Cornelius F. Murphy

Cornelius Murphy is a graduate of the College of The Holy Cross, The Boston College Law School, and has a graduate degree from The University of Virginia. He taught law at Duquesne University, and now lives in a retirement community north of Pittsburgh. Of his many publications, the most recent is: "Reflections On Old Age: A Study in Christian Humanism."


  1. I like the term, “Geriatric Spirituality” – so much is suggested in it: persons so close to the end times, the judgment, the finality of our brief span of days on this earth. It is a journey to Him – and the conclusion of the journey ought to be of such great importance to us all! To die well, to have a good death, is as important as having a good life, and learning how to live well can teach us how to die well.

    It is such a tragedy, that we the Church do not offer fitting adult formation to help guide us to a holy Christian life, and death. So much we ought to do, and to offer – and so little time and inclination to reform. God calls us to holiness, and the perfection of charity! His call is beautiful, and fitting. Of our response, I am ashamed.

  2. I am happy you brought this up; it has much interest for me, being in the “senior citizen” time myself and wondering how I got here sometimes. My life is different, my relationships are different, my prayer life is different. I’ve wondered about this and apparently it isn’t an odd thing. Thank you.


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