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09 Nov 2023

What on earth does spirituality have to do with ageing?


More than most would have thought.  People are moving from the material world to embracing beliefs with more substance.  This is having an impact on ageing and wellbeing.   

Belonging, and success, is defined by some as acquisition and accumulation. Maxing out the credit card can only hold sway for a limited period of time as many have discovered. More substantive versus superficial influences is important in defining the quality of life. This is one of the reasons why spirituality as part of life is gaining ascendancy.    

Those engaged in identifying the ingredients for ageing well now realise this to be a subject that warrants attention. Even to the point of defining best practice and developing policy initiatives.    

If spirituality is elevated to be a bona fide part of a national ‘ageing well’ strategy where is the best place to start? There is a growing and diverse set of opinions on such matters. 

New Zealand currently has a number of policy, planning and implementation initiatives fuelled by a vision of creating a society where older people live well, age well and have a respectful end of life in age-friendly communities. 

The New Zealand Government Better Later Life - He Oranga Kaumātua Strategy (2019-2034) focuses on making the future better for New Zealanders as we age. Its guiding principles are:

  • Valuing people as they age
  • Keeping people safe
  • Recognising diversity and that everyone is unique
  • Taking a whole-of-life and whānau-centered approach to ageing
  • Taking collective responsibility to plan and act for later life.

Of particular note is the objective of maximising people’s physical and mental health, and wellbeing throughout life, with an emphasis on building physical and mental resilience. 

At the same time, The Ageing Well National Science Challenge is looking at ways to add life to years for all older New Zealanders. The mission of Ageing Well is to enable all New Zealanders to reach their full potential through the life course with particular reference to the latter years of life.

This initiative maintains that harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the latter years of life is the best path forward.

Spiritual matters

There is growing evidence for recognition of the place of spirituality in the context of ageing well.  

On a number of levels but specifically in regard to this call to action included in the Government’s Better Later Life - He Oranga Kaumātua Strategy (2019-2034) the way forward is to increase understanding, and explore partnerships, to promote overall health and wellbeing for older people at an individual, organisational and community level.   

Can ageing well get better? 

Around the world there is a plethora of institutes looking at the myriad of issues related to the subject of ageing well. This is in response to a growing interest in methodologies and practices that will enhance peoples’ life experiences and expectancies. 

Many of these have been developed relative to different professional focusses and orientations. The United States National Institute on Aging, for example, supports and conducts genetic, biological, clinical, behavioural, social, and economic research to better understand the aging process, as well as diseases, conditions, and other problems or needs associated with growing older.

The Milken Institute’s Centre for the Future of Aging works to promote healthy, productive and purposeful ageing.

New Zealand’s Better Later Life - He Oranga Kaumātua Strategy (2019-2034) provides a research framework for evidence based best practice informed by elders lived experiences so that healthy ageing is promoted and supported in all aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand society.

Spirituality takes its place

A respected on-line medical information destination for physicians and health care providers Medscape makes the following observation about Spirituality in the context of positive ageing—what we refer to as ageing well.

Interest in spirituality and aging has increased recently, owing to overwhelming evidence of positive health outcomes linked to spirituality and religious participation. Increasing longevity in modern society puts spiritual needs of older adults at the forefront of societal priorities. Understanding individual spiritual perspectives becomes increasingly important, given the issues of loss, physical illness and mortality that are confronted in old age. There are multiple barriers to the proper assessment of spirituality in clinical practice and research (e.g., the lack of professional training for healthcare professionals, shortage of time and comfort for healthcare providers when discussing spiritual issues and needs). Integrating an individual's spiritual practice into their healthcare can help shape personalized medical care for older adults and improve health outcomes.

Medscape maintains that the role of religion, spirituality and/or belief can have numerous positive outcomes for older adults including enhanced health and well-being, greater capacity to cope, social support, and opportunities to participate in society. One of the reasons spirituality has become part of ageing well agendas is broadening the parameters of what constitutes spirituality and considering influences outside traditional religious practice.

Specifically spiritual

On that basis Dublin City University researchers Laszlo Zsolnai and Bernadette Flanagan in their International Handbook of Spirituality and Society, see many aspects of society embracing spiritual elements as part of their operations.

Spirituality is present in almost every sphere and aspect of social life, especially in the context of crises and vulnerabilities. Spirituality appears in our dealing with nature, home and community, healing, economics and business, knowledge, and education. Professions related to these fields are trying to integrate the spiritual aspect in their underlying theories, working models and practices. The “spiritualization” of the professions includes ecology, agriculture, landscape and urban planning, gardening, tourism, psychological counselling, pastoral care, social work, medicine, nursing, economics, business, law, politics, science, art, technology, architecture, design, fashion, media, and education.

At the same time a number of professional associations are growing to make spirituality a vital perspective in their functioning. Examples include the British Association for the Study of Spirituality; the European SPES Institute (Spirituality in Economics and Society); the Management, Spirituality and Religion Interest Group of the Academy of Management in the USA; and the Spirituality, Leadership & Management Network in Australia.

The Australian Disability organisation IDEAS (Information on Disability Education and Awareness Service ) provides a clear description of the difference between religion and spirituality:

“Religion is a specific set of organised beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group.

Spirituality is more a sense of an individual practice, and has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose. It also relates to the process of developing beliefs around the meaning of life and connection to others.”        

In the context of ageing, The World Health Organisation views spiritual influences—along with physical, social and mental contributions—as inextricably linked to quality of life. Evidence has demonstrated that spiritual health both predicted well-being and an older person’s ability to adjust to the challenges of ageing. 

Clearly any undertaking with a focus on ageing well would benefit from having spirituality on the agenda. 


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Published: May 2018

Reviewed: September 2022

To be reviewed: September 2025