Skip to main content
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2016

15 - Spiritual Development in Later Life: A Learning Experience?

from Part IV - Meeting Spiritual Needs in Older Age


As we get older, challenging questions can arise concerning the meaning and purpose of life, especially as we move beyond the main phases of career and family building and look back on the mix of experiences that most lives encounter. There is a common-sense and culturally based understanding that the meaning of our life so far, and of its future, becomes more salient with age and that life review in various forms is an important means of exploring these issues. Faith and spirituality have traditionally been lenses through which people have explored existential matters such as identity, calling and purpose in life as well as their significance within the cosmos, relationship with an ultimate ‘other’, and other great mysteries of life and death.

This chapter explores ideas about spirituality in relation to ageing and learning and in particular how spirituality is experienced in later life. It focuses on the question of whether, and in what ways, learning in the later years can enhance a spiritual dimension to life. As a gerontologist who has a special interest in lifelong learning, I find that spirituality can be usefully discussed in terms of learning and development over the lifetime, and as part of mature identity (Walker 2010). The relevance of older people's faith and spirituality, often expressed in membership of a religion, is being rediscovered by social scientists as an important element in the meaning, experience and quality of later lives.

Faith and spirituality can enable older people to experience their lives as meaningful despite challenges to their quality of life; new meanings and purposes can replace those that experience has found wanting. Where physical or economic powers may diminish, a potential remains to reflect and make sense of things using the resources of faith and inner spiritual strength. Membership of a faith community can offer a valuable source of support, encouragement and identity. Participation in communal expressions of hope and belief, as well as in symbolically meaningful activities, are still significant aspects of many older people's lives.

Gerontological research across many disciplines and professional fields of practice increasingly links faith and spirituality in older people with higher levels of life satisfaction, better adjustment and coping with stressful life events, and recovery from illness and bereavement.

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

Spiritual Dimensions of Ageing
  • Online ISBN: 9781316136157
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
Albans, K. and Johnson, M. (2013). God, Me and Being Very Old: Stories and Spirituality in Later Life. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Atchley, R.C. (2009). Spirituality and Aging. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bianchi, E. (1984). Aging as a Spiritual Journey. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Chittister, J. (2008). The Gift of Years, Growing Old Gracefully. New York: BlueBridge.
Cohen, H., Thomas, C. and Williamson, C. (2008). ‘Religion and Spirituality as Defined by Older Adults’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work 51(3–4): 284–299.
Coleman, P. and O'Hanlon, A. (2004). Ageing and Development. London: Arnold/Hodder.
Coleman, P., Mills, M. and Speck, P. (2006). ‘Ageing and Belief – Between Tradition and Change’, in Vincent, J., Phillipson, C. and Downs, M. (Eds.) The Futures of Old Age, pp. 125–134. London: Sage Publications.
Crowther, M.R., Parker, M.W., Achenbaum, W.A., Larimore, W.L. and Koenig, H.G. (2002). ‘Rowe and Kahn's Model of Successful Aging Revisited: Positive Spirituality – the Forgotten Factor’, The Gerontologist 42(5): 613–620.
Dalby, P. (2006). ‘Is There a Process of Spiritual Change or Development Associated with Ageing? A Critical Review of Research’, Aging and Mental Health 10(1): 4–12.
Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society, New York: Norton.
Erikson, J.M. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed. New York. Norton.
Fisher, J. and Simmons, H. (2007). A Journey Called Aging: Challenges and Opportunities in Older Adulthood. New York: Haworth Press.
Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. London: Harper and Row.
Fowler, J. (2001). ‘Faith Development Theory and the Postmodern Challenges’, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 11(3): 159–172.
Fry, P. (2000). ‘Religious Involvement, Spirituality and Personal Meaning for Life: Existential Predictors of Psychological Wellbeing in Community-Residing and Institutional Care Elders’, Aging and Mental Health 4(4): 375–387.
Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005). The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.
de Hennezel, M. (2011). The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting. London: Pan Macmillan.
Hollis, J. (2006). Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. New York: Gotham Books.
von Humbolt, et al. (2014). ‘Does Spirituality Really Matter? A Study of the Potential of Spirituality for Older Adults’ Adjustment to Aging’, Japanese Psychological Research 56(2): 114–125.
Jarvis, P. (1995). Adult and Continuing Education: Theory and Practice, London: Routledge.
Jewell, A. (2004). Report on Sisters Work. London: Conference of Religious in England and Wales.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. London: Prentice-Hall.
Knowles, M. (1990). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Houston: Gulf Publishing.
Laceulle, H. (2012). ‘Self-realisation and Ageing: A Spiritual Perspective’, in Baars, J., Dohmen, J., Grenier, A. and Phillipson, C. (Eds.) Ageing, Meaning and Social Structure: Connecting Humanistic and Critical Gerontology, pp. 97–118. Bristol: Policy Press.
Levinson, D. (1978). The Seasons of a Man's Life. New York: Ballantine Books.
MacKinlay, E. (2001). The Spiritual Dimensions of Ageing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.
McAdams, D. (2001). ‘Generativity in Midlife’ in Lachman, M. (Ed.) Handbook of Midlife Development. New York: Wiley.
McCann Mortimer, P., Ward, L. and Winefield, H. (2008). ‘Successful Ageing by Whose Definition? Views of Older Spiritually Affiliated Women’, Australasian Journal on Ageing 27(4): 200–204.
The Methodist Church and The Church of England (2014). Seasons of my Soul: Conversations in the Second Half of Life. London: Methodist Publishing.
Moberg, D. (2008). ‘Spirituality and Aging: Research and Implications’, Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging 20(1–2): 95–134.
Moody, H.R. and Carroll, D. (1997). The Five Stages of the Soul. New York: Anchor Books.
Moody, H. (1998, reprinted 2015). ‘Does Old Age Have Meaning?’ in Moody, H. and Sasser, J. (Eds.) Aging; Concepts and Controversies, pp. 29–39. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sadler, E. and Biggs, S. (2006). ‘Exploring the Links between Spirituality and “Successful Ageing”’, Journal of Social Work Practice 20(3): 267–280.
Schachter-Shalomi, Z. (1997). From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Slee, N. (2004). Women's Faith Development: Patterns and Processes. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Stokes, K. (1990). ‘Faith Development in the Adult Life Cycle’ in Seeber, J. J. (Ed.) Spiritual Maturity in the Later Years, pp. 167–184. New York: Howarth.
Thorsen, K. (1998). ‘The Paradoxes of Gerotranscendence: The Theory of Gerotranscendence in a Cultural Gerontological and Post-modernist Perspective’, Norwegian Journal of Epidemiology 8(2): 165–176.
Tomlin, G. (2009). Spiritual Fitness. London: Bloomsbury Continuum.
Tornstam, L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging. New York: Springer.
Vahia, I. et al. (2011). ‘Correlates of Spirituality in Older Women’, Aging and Mental Health 15(1): 97–102.
Walker, J. (2010). ‘Learning from the Inside Out – Mapping Spirituality and Ageing’, International Journal of Education and Ageing 1(2): 179–196.
Wink, P. and Dillon, M. (2002). ‘Spiritual Development Across the Adult Life Course: Findings from a Longitudinal Study’, Journal of Adult Development 9(1): 79–94.
Woodhead, L. and Catto, R. (2012). Religion and Change in Modern Britain. Abingdon: Routledge.
Woodward, J. (2008). Valuing Age: Pastoral Ministry with Older People. London: SPCK.
Wuthnow, R. (1998). After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press.