As children, we experienced the wonders of this time of year with thoughts of Santa, Christmas trees, snow, gifts, and even days off of school. However, age often brings with it a diminished excitement for the holidays. Jobs and the demands and expectations of family can cause stress and a desire for the whole thing to be over so life can return to normal, whatever that might be.

Reverend Howard L. West, our guest blogger for this month, breaches another issue one might encounter at the holiday table. The “no politics, no religion” discussion ban. So, what does this have to do with residents in an assisted living community? To begin with, as a caregiver, you must embrace that not all of your residents will share the same degree of religious devotion or beliefs. Having an open mind and the willingness and ability to engage them in conversation will help bridge generational gaps and embrace cultural diversity. Allowing seniors to share their beliefs and memories of holidays past will enrich not only their lives, but yours as well.

So, on behalf of SeniorLivingU, we offer through Rev. West a message for all to be prepared to listen patiently and carefully. May this time of year bring peace and joy to you and yours.

The following blog was written by Rev. Howard L. West III, M.Ed., M.Div., Executive Director of Spiritual Life Services of Country Meadows Retirement Communities.

Twenty years ago, when I met people and they discovered I was clergy, some would apologetically say, “I don’t go to church very often because I can’t find a church that I like.” Ten years ago, I heard more people unapologetically say, “I’m not into organized religion, but I still believe in God.” In the past five years, I frequently hear more people – especially younger people – say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

Changing Public Attitudes Towards Religion

These changing responses over time reflect how public attitudes and the practice of religion in America have truly been changing. In recent studies, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans are less religious than they were 20 years ago. However, while Americans report that we are less “religious” today, over 80% of Americans still say they believe in God or a higher power. In comparison to other developed Western nations, America still has one of the highest rates of people who report having faith in God or a higher power.

A 2017 Pew Research Center study entitled The Religious Typology — A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion determined that around one-third of Americans say they are “highly religious,” one-third consider themselves “somewhat religious,” and one-third consider themselves “non-religious.” Among the one-third that consider themselves “highly religious,” only one in five go to church on a weekly basis.

Religious Beliefs in Pennsylvania

Living in central Pennsylvania – which is considered the northern end of America’s Bible Belt – has shown me that culture and demographics have a big impact on whether someone is religious. This part of Pennsylvania is known for large numbers of Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative religious communities that fall into the one in five church-going group. However, if I travel two hours east to visit family in the Philadelphia suburbs, I find a higher concentration of the four in five less religious or “non-religious” crowd. That’s when I need to remember that even most of those folks believe in something, albeit different than their central Pennsylvania cousins. In fact, only one in ten Americans claim to believe there is no higher being.

Spirituality vs. Religion

The shift towards using the term “spiritual” rather than “religious” represents a few things. While there is a significant overlap between spirituality and religion, several dynamics have caused more people to be less likely to identify as religious than they have in the past. During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Americans witnessed clergy abuse scandals, theological disagreements about gender identification, and controversial interactions between people in religion and politics. Use of the “R” word in relation to politics on social media has caused a great deal of tension and even splits among families. Subsequently, many families are returning to the old rule of “no talking about religion or politics at the dinner table.”

While religion is usually focused on organized systems of beliefs and traditions, spirituality deals more with an individual’s beliefs and experiences. Three common elements of spirituality are:

  • The search for meaning and purpose
  • Personal beliefs and experiences with a higher power (usually referred to as “God” in our culture)
  • Spiritual beliefs as a source of direction and support in challenging times

Improving Relationships with Family and Friends

With a little self-restraint and lots of good listening, most people will find their social interactions with others go more smoothly, even when they hold different religious beliefs than other parties. For example, asking people how their life has changed in the past year can be very meaningful. Listening to younger peoples’ thoughts about growing up with technology gives them a chance to examine direction and meaning in their lives. Interactions with older relatives are a great chance to learn about the wisdom contained in their life stories. Listening to stories about how people’s spiritual beliefs got them through a tough time can give hope to people who are currently struggling. This is probably why the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart is a family favorite during the holidays.

This holiday season – or any other time of year – if you realize discussions involving religion are having a negative impact on your family and social lives, try shifting the conversation to have a spiritual focus. Shift your focus to those three areas: meaning and purpose, belief and experiences with a higher power, and seeking direction and support during challenging times. Most importantly, be prepared to listen patiently and carefully. You’ll probably find that you have much more in common with others, even those who hold different religious beliefs than you.

To read another blog by Reverend West, check out Less is More: Dealing with Loss, Grief, and the Holiday Season.