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Attitudes to ageing

What can nuns teach us about ageing well?

Catholic nuns have a very different way of life from most of us, one that is almost unimaginable to those of us in the Western secular world as we rush about meeting deadlines, juggling responsibilities and striving to meet our own needs and those of others around us. Many years ago now, I was educated in a Catholic convent boarding school and so began a fascination with these rather otherworldly figures, who I saw as teachers but whose daily life outside of school I could only imagine. While I would not describe myself as having religious faith, I think we may have much to learn from people who live a truly religious life. So when I came across a psychological study on the lived experience of nuns and how their religious and spiritual experiences helped them to age better than the rest of us, I just to had to learn more.

Deborah MacManus, PhD, talked to 12 retired Roman Catholic Sisters aged 75 years and older from two convents in the United States and distilled her findings into a research paper that was published in 2020. The study builds on research including The Nun Study, a study over time of ageing, positive emotion, and Alzheimer’s disease among 678 Roman Catholic Sisters. The Nun Study indicated that a strong connection between being happy and living longer existed. By analysing the nuns’ writing, the study found that for every 1% increase in the number of positive sentences, there was a 1.4% decrease in mortality rate, and the “happiest” sisters lived 10 years longer.

In this latest study, those interviewed were Catholic Sisters aged 75 years and older. The median age was 87 years. Common themes emerged that may have relevance to our own lives:

Daily Spiritual Practice and Meditation

Regardless of the reason for joining religious life, whether to devote themselves to God, a vocation, or a family expectation, virtually all of the nuns said that they had a significant daily engagement in religious and spiritual practice, including meditation.

Self-Contentment and Positivity

The sisters described their retirement as productive and a continuation of their services to others. Overall, they spoke of leading a healthy and happy life and all of them believed they had aged successfully.

The youngest sister in the study, at 81, said “I think feeding your mind and body and your spirit are an important holistic approach keeps you successfully ageing, you successfully age. I think it’s the ability to keep moving, knowing that God’s with me.”

Life Acceptance

In response to the question “How do you cope with difficult life issues that may come or what you feel helps you cope?” One sister aged 92 years, answered with the following:

“I think, first of all being able to accept yourself as you are and realise that as time goes on there will be changes, physical, mental, and spiritual. And, to be able to move into that with gratitude, the life you had and making the most of each day and trying to enjoy what you have at that time.”

Sense of Faith and Positivity Regarding the Afterlife

Unsurprisingly the sisters described faith as a deep belief in God and another life beyond this one. Their religious practice had shaped their belief in an afterlife, and all felt prepared for the end of life. They were asked, “What are your perceptions or beliefs of life beyond this one?” One Sister, aged 86, said “I am heading home, and I am looking for the new creation whatever comes. I don’t have all the answers in this life, but I will for sure in the next.”

Meditation, Prayer, and Spirituality

While we laypeople may think of prayer and meditation as very different things, the nuns in this study shared the view that prayer meant to meditate and to be religious was to be spiritual. All the participants described their religious and spiritual practice in the same context as meditation.

“Religion and spirituality, yes, they go hand in hand. I meditate as I am waiting for Mass. Spirituality has made me a kinder more tolerant person. I am a happy person, I attribute that to spirituality.”

Mental Engagement

Convent life included a variety of mentally stimulating activities and the Sisters talked of reading, scrabble, and crossword puzzles on a daily basis. Reading was a common theme and every sister spoke of reading novels and newspapers. One Sister, aged 94, said, “Oh, I adore crossword puzzles, I watch Jeopardy every night. And I read. Oh, yes. Yes, absolutely, yeah. That’s a big one.”

All of the Sisters were highly educated, and we have seen the link between lifelong learning and successful ageing in many other pieces of research.

There is, of course, a wealth of differentiating factors between laypeople and nuns – and we may immediately point to the multiple stresses of family, work and caring responsibilities. However, by focusing on the similarities and reflecting on the common themes emerging from McManus’ research, there may be lessons here that we all have in common.

Literature and Links

McManus, D., (2020) A Phenomenological Study of the Lived Experience of Roman Catholic Sisters and Successful Aging, Journal of Holistic Nursing. 2020;38(4):350-361. doi:10.1177/0898010120913174

Snowdon, D. A, Ostwald, S.K., Kane, R.L., Education, Survival, and Independence in Elderly Catholic Sisters, 1936-1988, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 130, Issue 5, November 1989, Pages 999–1012, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a115433

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