Thursday, March 3, 2011

Religion at the End of Life

2/3/2011—I’m visiting my Dad at an assisted living facility in Florida this week. He is 93 years old and in reasonably good health and spirits. Everything about him is slowing down and getting weak, but he is in a pretty good institution, there is enough money for comfort, family is close by. In other words, he is living out life about as well as one can. Yet life for him is bleak and empty.

Life for the other residents around him is not much better. They are in many ways more vigorous, but their focus has tended to become narrow and petty. There is no vision of hope either in the leadership of the institution or in the consciousness of those they serve.

I have written about the emptiness of life in a secular culture, but I was writing about the challenge of secularism itself. Secularists lack the comfort of religion.

But, although I have not raised the question of God or religion with residents here, judging by their ages, there is not likely to be much of an atheist cohort. In other words, these residents are life-long religious believers. Yet religion is now absent from their lives in any significant way despite the availability of religious services of various kinds.

My father is a good example of this tendency. He has always lived a religious life, at times strenuously so. Prayer now would in fact be one important way of life open to him. He is increasingly turned inward. Union of some kind with transcendent reality would enrich his existence. But it does not occur to him at all. Efforts to suggest this path are shrugged off.

What lessons are available here? Perhaps extreme old age robs us of all meaningful life before we die. That is not a cheery thought but maybe it is the truth.

Perhaps the fault is institutional in the sense that the leadership of the facility does not genuinely present religious alternatives. That leadership is of course younger and they definitely lack any religious grounding. Maybe Dad would have been better off in a religiously affiliated program.

Perhaps the lesson is geographical. People in Florida have often cut themselves off from community ties earlier in life. Dad’s religious life was centered in Connecticut. It did not really survive the move to Florida. Remaining as close as we can to real life may be a better way to live than moving somewhere.

I know that the following lesson is true. When religious believers tout the advantages of religion, they fail to mention that these advantages are only available to genuinely committed believers who have embedded themselves deeply in their religious traditions. They are true believers, not in the dogmatic sense but in the sense that they have a strong sense of what our religions mean to them. This is just as necessary in conservative or liberal religion. They must be educated in the faith.

Now ask yourself how many such believers you know.


  1. My grandparents, when they became very advanced in years, remained either living with or closely connected with their families. Their children and grandchildren. I did not sense the mind set that you write about in them at all. Lots of pain at the very end and such, but emotionally, they were quite intact. People have for the most part lived as part of a family group. Only recently has this changed. Maybe evolution has played as large part in our emotional development as it has in our physical.

  2. I think this is very likely true. Connection to family life would be a more healthful environment. Assisted living facilities, whether well-run or badly, are strange and alienated institutions. The elderly are quite isolated there. (Of course I am not casting aspersions on people for arranging for care of their loved ones at such institutions. My father would have died some time ago without the constant medical care he receives where he is, even apart from the question of how a family could care for someone in my father's condition.)