Thursday, April 4, 2013

Going to Church and Growing Older!

He was a friend of advanced age and faltering health. I was his Pastor, making what I thought was a routine home visit. Before his health had gone south, he had easily found other activities more inviting than church attendance. As he told me about his deteriorating strength and the recent word from his doctor that his time on this earth was short, I moved physically and emotionally closer to him; all of my training and my caring instincts signaled that he was about to tell me something that he felt was profoundly meaningful.

When I gave him freedom to express himself, he said, “Well, preacher, I guess I’ll need to get back to church. I’m even thinking about returning to that men’s Bible study class I used to attend.” “Why is that?” I responded, in my best client-centered counseling style. He looked at me as if this should have been evident to any man of the cloth and nearly shouted, “I’ll need someone to carry my casket when I die!”
Long ago, I was taught that religiosity persists when it provides either meaning or belonging or both. I recalled this anecdote recently when I heard the report of new research on the impact of loneliness and social isolation on human health ( Scholars at University College, London based their work on a substantial body of research which has long shown that both loneliness and infrequent human contact can shorten one’s life and actually make one sick. The scientists expected to find that, when combined, these two risk factors would be especially dangerous.

Researcher Andrew Steptoe reported a surprising conclusion to his study: “Both social isolation and loneliness appeared initially to be associated with a greater risk of dying. But, it was really the isolation which was more important.” While persons with greater levels of loneliness are apparently more likely to die, it is also true that they are more likely to have other risk factors, like being poor and having chronic health problems. When these factors are controlled, however, the added risk associated with being lonely disappears, according to Steptoe’s research.

On the other hand, people who invest less time with family or friends or at meaningful social events are significantly more likely to die, regardless of income or health status. While it is a fact that loneliness among the aged hurts, actual social isolation is much more likely to kill!

If every person defines loneliness differently, it is also true that individuals have varying tolerances for it. Self-definitions of loneliness may be changing in the Internet age. Social isolation, on the other hand, is a more stable and more easily defined social reality, less influenced by subjective definition, remaining far more powerful. The rise of social networking may tempt some to believe that they are connected with others; thus, they are less likely to report themselves as lonely. But the lack of actual, human-to-human social intercourse, no matter how temporarily obscured by electronic connectivity, remains a powerful detriment to human well-being. Lack of meaningful interaction with others seems to be a causative factor in increases in both mortality and morbidity.
Miraculous drugs promise longer lifespans and contemporary cyber capacity may impart a fleeting sense of community and connective relief from isolation and loneliness. It remains true, however, that nothing enhances life’s health like ongoing, actual and affirming interactions with human beings around significant shared world views. Obviously, interacting with real persons in a supportive atmosphere has practical benefits; it can provide assistance in such everyday aging concerns as monitoring health symptoms, securing attention by health professionals and finding meaningful pursuits that help one to focus on other than personal problems. But something else seems to be at work here. Actual social interaction appears to enhance overall health and to encourage the will to live.

So, in the final analysis, lining up potential pall bearers may not be the only reason to return to church in one’s golden years. Early in the Bible, we are told that “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18a, NIV) Beyond the comfort of beliefs about the hereafter, the reflection on life’s (and death’s) absolutes and the investment in meaningful causes and younger generations, seniors may actually receive many here-and-now blessings by regular social interaction through church worship attendance and even by returning to Sunday School!
See you at church next Sunday!