Does belief change in old age?

Does belief change in old age?


Belief and Ageing

Spiritual pathways in later life

Peter G. Coleman (Editor) Paperback, 192 pages Policy Press Bristol 2011

ISBN 9781847424594   2011


Most of the books on my shelves about religion and ageing are written out of the United States of America. There are many individuals and groups who are investing resources in research in this area on the USA. This stands in sharp comparison to the UK and Europe where religion is on the decline and seems increasingly irrelevant in a culture that is increasingly individualistic, reductionist and materialistic.

This book is a welcome addition to the literature this field. Any interested reader should be directed to it as an insightful and imaginative exploration of belief in older age and these essays are provide an excellent starting point. They offer a comprehensive picture of the way religion and other beliefs take shape in older people’s lives.

How might one account for the excellence?

First, it is based on the leading longitudinal study of older people. These chapters give voice to some forty years of interviewing experience. It illustrates the variety of religious, spiritual and other beliefs held by older people. The participants of this study include not only British Christians, but also Muslims, Humanists and witnesses of the Soviet persecution of religion.

Second, the editor Peter G. Coleman (who is Professor of Psychogerontology at the University of Southampton), is an immensely accomplished and innovative researcher who brings to the work the ability to work across professional boundaries.  He has published widely on issues of development and mental health in later life, including the role of life review and spiritual belief. As editor of this volume he manages to maintain consistency and all the chapters are written with an eye on helpfulness for the reader.

There are nine chapters which explore belief, how religion might help people to age, the nature of the process of listening and what the authors research reveals about whether belief helps individuals to age well. A particular concern is facing death and coping with bereavement (chapter five).The volume takes seriously the diversity of belief in our multi- faith culture and Coleman completes the book with a final chapter in ageing and the future of belief. This chapter looks to the future and increasing diversity of choice in matters of belief among Britain and Europe’s older citizens as a consequence of immigration and globalisation.

There is a useful and comprehensive set of references and an index.

I hope that there might be the widest possible readership of these essays. There are implications for this work on both the self-understanding of the Church and Society where our marketized system of values has marginalised older people to the margins. Too many people view older people as unproductive and burdensome. We need to resist this and see within the narratives of older people wisdom that reflects back to us our limitations.

While there is some disagreement about the definition of spirituality and its relationship to belief it is widely accepted that ageing is a journey which includes a spiritual dimension. This spiritual dimension focuses on meaning of life, hope and purpose, explored through relationships with others, with the natural world and with the transcendent.

Coleman provides us with a strong evidence base which suggests that a genuine and intentional accompaniment of people on their ageing journey; giving time, presence and listening are the core of good spiritual practice.  Reminiscence, life story, creative activities and meaningful rituals all help the process of coming to terms with ageing and change.

From this perspective we should be cautious of the secular bias in the academy as a barrier for those developing broader models of care for older people. Indeed the Churches should be challenging their ageism that profoundly devalues what older people can bring to a faith community. As a practical theologian I remain convinced that we need a more comprehensive theology of ageing to assist us in both thinking and practice of our adaptation to longevity in the twenty first century. It might even be seen as both prophetic and counter cultural as we embrace older age as possibly one of the most demanding periods of our lives. Coleman and his colleagues show us why religion must not be dismissed and that there is a positive relationship between belief, health and well-being.


Canon James Woodward Ph.D.

The College of St George, Windsor Castle.

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