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November 1, 2004

Sociologist’s New Book Explores Role
of Faith in Elderly Population


Older adults in Connecticut are keeping the faith, says UConn sociologist Susan Eisenhandler. And many are doing it in their own way: with daily prayer.

Eisenhandler, a professor of sociology at the Waterbury campus, has been conducting qualitative research on age and identity for 18 years. Much of her research has focused on religion and spirituality among older people.

In one study, now a book called Keeping the Faith in Late Life, published last year, Eisenhandler interviewed older adults who lived in both the community and in long-term care settings “to find out what was meaningful about their faith and how they practiced it,” she says.

She conducted extensive interviews with 46 older people, who ranged in age from 60 to 96. Thirty-one lived in the community and 15 were in nursing homes. The women and men in the study came from a variety of denominational background from three major religions: Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism. One of the key characteristics of the group, is the longevity of their residence in Connecticut: many were born, raised, and have lived here most of their lives.

“They were raised in this state of steady habits,” Eisenhandler says. “They had significant exposure to and experience with religion during their childhood and young adulthood. Religion was a pervasive feature of growing up, and, my findings conclude that it continues to be relevant to their present lives.”

While many of the elders were no longer able to attend religious services at churches or synagogues as often as they’d like, they still “kept the faith” by praying daily, she reported.

“Whether they lived in the community or in a long-term care facility or nursing home, they prayed every day,” Eisenhandler says, adding that this confirms data from larger quantitative studies about faith and practice.

“Daily prayer was described and recounted as the most meaningful way of connecting with the divine and the sacred for most people in the study,” Eisenhandler wrote. Prayer took on different shapes and forms. Some people used standard prayers, while others created their own. The prayers were not contemplative, but rather what Eisenhandler terms reflexive, and carried out in ways learned in childhood. Prayer was defined by many as a person’s talking with God or connecting with and communicating with a divine force in a private setting.

Eisenhandler says that virtually all the participants credited their mothers as the first person to teach them prayers.

She notes that this socialization to faith is dramatically different from the baby boomers’ take on religion, which tends to be more “spiritual” and not entrenched in early socialization.

“One woman’s statement that ‘religion is something you carry with you,’ is both an apt and an accurate generalization about this group of older adults,” Eisenhandler says.

When the elders were asked whether they considered themselves religious, many said “yes” but qualified it with “but I’m not a fanatic,” she says.

They also had learned how to adapt to shifting religious practices, such as changing rituals in mainline churches and changes in society, she adds: “They said that as they got older, they ‘learned how to bend’.”

Eisenhandler says the research is important because it “acknowledges the saliency and great premium that older adults place on faith. We need to be aware of the role religion has in the lives of the elderly, particularly when we create social programs and policies.”