Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

The aging process as a focus of academic study. As an interdisciplinary area with a strong practical focus, gerontology draws from both the social and the medical sciences, and has expanded greatly in the last few decades.

Specific topics of concern range from the mental and emotional well-being of older persons living alone to public policy debates regarding health care. Many issues that concern gerontologists also interest sociologists of religion. These include, for example, emotional well-being and facing the inevitability of death. Although some research in the sociology of religion has focused explicitly on older persons, particularly the work of Moberg (1965), the linkage between the two areas of study is limited. In 1972, Heenan indicated the "empirical lacunae" between these two areas. Since then, however, work has been done to bridge the gap. At least one journal now is devoted explicitly to the area where religious studies and gerontology overlap: the Journal of Religious Gerontology (initiated in 1984). In addition, edited volumes by Koenig et al. (1988) and Thomas and Eisenhandler (1994), which include contributions representing a variety of perspectives, illustrate a convergence between the two specialties. On the other hand, the specialized journals within each field probably inadvertently help maintain the distance between them.

One basic question sociologists have investigated is whether people become more religious as they get older. Given that religion deals with life-and-death issues, a strong theoretical argument can be made that as individuals approach their own death, they are likely to become more religious. However, an alternative argument, which is supported by much empirical research, is that older people are not likely to change the basic orientation established earlier in their lives. The answer may depend on how religious older people were in earlier stages of their lives. Some research suggests that persons who have been religious throughout their lives find their religious faith becoming subjectively more important as they grow older. However, as health and mobility deteriorate, the range of public religious activities such as church attendance often declines. This pattern is consistent with the once popular, but frequently criticized, disengagement theory (Bahr 1970). At the same time, however, for those who are religious, private activities such as viewing religious TV programs or personal prayer often show an increase. In general, the increased subjective importance of religion for those who are religious applies particularly to those with a strong intrinsic religious orientation, for whom religion is important in achieving the highest and final stage of psychological development and in alleviating fear of death. In any case, sociologists would emphasize the importance of specifying which dimensions of religion may increase, which ones decrease, and which ones remain stable among older persons (Blazer and Palmore 1976, Mindel and Vaughan 1978).

Gerontologists and sociologists of religion also have overlapping interests in the role of churches and clergy in providing support services to the elderly, both social and spiritual, as well as to primary caregivers (Gray and Moberg 1977). Although this area is probably not as thoroughly researched as the individual-level relationship between religion and aging, studies of the clergy role recognize the importance of counseling individuals with life transitions and problems of various kinds, and this would include dealing with the spiritual dimension of bereavement and acute health problems, both of which are likely to increase in frequency with increasing age. Some religious organizations provide worship and social services in nursing homes or retirement centers, and some provide transportation to religious services.

Doyle Paul Johnson


H. M. Bahr, "Aging and Religious Disaffiliation," Social Forces 49(1970):59-71

G. Blazer and E. Palmore, "Religion and Aging in a Longitudinal Panel," Gerontologist 16(1976): 82-85

R. Gray and D. O. Moberg, The Church and the Older Person (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977)

E. F. Heenan, "Sociology of Religion and the Aged," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11(1972):171-176

Journal of Religious Gerontology (1984–)

H. G. Koenig et al. (eds.), Religion, Aging, and Health (New York: Greenwood, 1988)

C. H. Mindel and C. E. Vaughan, "A Multidimensional Approach to Religiosity and Disengagement," Journal of Gerontology 33(1978):103-108

D. O. Moberg, "Religion in Old Age," Gerontologist 5(1965):78-87, 111-112

L. E. Thomas and S. A. Eisenhandler (eds.), Aging and the Religious Dimension (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994).

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