Spring 2018
Relational Fragility and the Isolational Trajectory in the Latter Stages of Life

Late Life Relationships in Spiritual Perspective


Dr. Ellor is a Professor of Social Work at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. He has practiced Social Work for over 40 years and taught in higher education for 36 years. He worked as a medical social worker at two different hospitals. He then went to work as a Research Associate at the University of Chicago School of Social Work for 4 years, followed by 21 years at National – Louis University. He has been at Baylor for the past 14 years. Jim has written or edited 10 books, and over 100 book chapters and journal articles in the field of gerontology. Rev. Ellor is also a practicing Presbyterian Minister (PCUSA). He currently serves First Presbyterian Church of Waco, Texas as a Parish Associate. He has also served in both hospital and long term care chaplaincy. Jim’s most recent book is: Ellor, J. W. (Ed.) (2009). Methods in Religion, Spirituality and Aging. Philadelphia: Routledge Press.

Mailing Address:
Diana R. Garland School of Social Work
Baylor University
One Bear Place # 97320
Waco, Texas 76798-7320
Phone Number: 254-710-4439
E-mail: James_Ellor@Baylor.edu

James W. Ellor, PhD, DMin

SUMMARY:Late Life Relationships in Spiritual Perspective is a review of the research around the impact of religion and spirituality on relationships. Late life relationships often involve a foundation in religion and/or spirituality particularly when the individuals involved view God as still very active in the world. This article begins by talking about definitions of religion and the challenge of defining spirituality and moves onto discuss basic concepts of intrinsic/extrinsic religion, coping, marriage and family, and social networks involving faith communities. This article explores these concepts as they are reflected in the research over the past 30 years.

Late Life Relationships in Spiritual Perspective

The important role of religion and spirituality in the lives of those over the age of 65 has been long documented (Maves, & Cedarleaf, 1949; and Gray & Moberg, 1962). Research has been conducted into the impact of religion since before the 1920’s. Since that time, researchers have addressed many important questions about the impact of religion on late life relationships. We begin our discussion by examining how researchers have defined religiosity and how this has led them to determine the importance of religion and/or spirituality for individual older people.

Cohort Effects and Changes

One of the critical research questions was whether one becomes more religious as one ages. Prior to 1969, research largely found that older adults attend religious services more than successive younger generations suggesting that the older one gets, the more likely she/he is to become more religious.

However, as a result of the Duke Longitudinal Study of Aging (1955- 1969) a new perspective was offered (Blazer & Palmore, 1976, p. 85). This study found that religion was not a reflection of aging, but rather a cohort ef-fect. In other words, even though data suggests that older persons are more likely to attend church, synagogue, temple or mosque, this reflects the life experience of their cohort, rather than a reflection of aging. This view of religion continued through the 1980’s into the 1990’s even as religious research embraced the idea of spirituality and became largely inseparable.

However, today we are seeing a very new picture. There has been a shift, particularly with younger persons, to embrace spirituality, rather than religion. Even though studies suggest that attendance at religious organizations has not radically changed, even those who attend religious congregations identify themselves more with spirituality (Ellor & McGregor, 2011). Whether or not this shift will affect attendance in future cohorts of elders is unclear. However, what is clear is that any evaluation of how religion affects late life relationships must include an investigation of both religion and spirituality.

Sorting out Religion and Spirituality

The terms religion and spirituality, while often used together, can be understood as distinct concepts. Numerous efforts to offer definitions for these concepts are found in the literature. Taken together, religion generally refers to faith traditions, congregations, and dogmas. Spirituality, on the other hand, seems to be defined more along the lines of individual beliefs and relationships with the spiritual. For example, Koenig, King, & Carson (2012) offer the following two definitions: “Religion, involves beliefs, practices, and rituals related to the sacred, (p. 37)” whereas here spirituality is generally more challenging to define. They suggest “the word spirituality has none of the baggage; it has come to mean whatever people wish and has wide applicability and appreciation in this age of individualism (p. 38).” The challenge that Koenig and Associates are pointing out is that spirituality is more likely to reflect individual preferences and each person has his or her own perceptions or nuances as to what this should mean. For this reason, spirituality can be much more difficult to define.

Relationships, when traced back to religion, tend to suggest an institutional context. Bible studies, friends from synagogue, temple as a place to meet new friends, or rituals in which all the members of the mosque participate all contribute to relationships. While the institutions may be context that brings people together, relationships are still maintained by individuals. Thus, spirituality may best capture the connection between people, whether it reflects a relationship to the divine or between two persons with something in common. Regardless, an older persons’ beliefs, whether based in religious dogma or spiritual ideas, are likely to have a significant impact on their relationships in later life.

Intrinsic/Extrinsic Religion

Another way to think about how important religion is for an older person is to consider what motivates a person to embrace religion or faith. Gordon Allport, seeking to clarify religious orientations, developed the concept of intrinsic/extrinsic religion (Allport & Ross, 1967). He integrated this concept into a 20-point scale that sorts individuals into two groups, 1) those with an intrinsic sense of religiosity and 2) those with an extrinsic perspective. This index has frequently been used as a “religiosity scale,” or a measure that determines religiousness.


Allport explains persons with extrinsic orientation are “….disposed to use religion for their own ends.” He states the term extrinsic is borrowed from axiology in order to “designate an interest that is held because it serves other, more ultimate interests” (Allport & Ross, 1967, p. 434). While this has been interpreted in other contexts since the work of Gordon Allport, for the most part, definitions seem to rely on the idea that people with extrinsic leanings have some type of motivation that does not reflect their faith for coming to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. For example, a person who sees their social standing enhanced by stating that they are a member of 1st Church.


On the other hand, the intrinsic believer is there to worship God, however she or he perceives God. Allport defines the intrinsic person as one who finds their “master motive in religion.” The intrinsic believer will regard other needs as less significant and attempt to bring these needs into harmony with religious beliefs and prescriptions, (Allport & Ross, 1967, p. 434).

This concept holds a long history in the research field, but is important to direct practice as it signals information about the type of relationship one’s client might have with their religious congregation. Intrinsically oriented individuals seem to see their congregation and faith as a source of support and assistance, where this may not be as true for a person with an extrinsic orientation. This research also seems to suggest the importance of their religion or faith to that individual. This was not the original intent from Gordon Allport, but anecdotally seems to be helpful.

The literature throughout the 1960s and 1970s often used this idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic religion as a primary religiosity factor. It seemed as if this was somewhat abandoned for the next 20 years, but has returned in more recent years. More recent researchers see this distinction as the difference between a person committed to their religion or faith and someone who is not. This distinction seems to sort persons who have a personal faith rather than someone who treats it more like a club.

For care providers, it is important to utilize both of these concepts in determining the impact religion and spir-ituality has for your individual clients. In religious research, this concept of intrinsic vs. extrinsic religion reflects the essential motivations for embracing religion, but does not necessarily reflect the spirituality of the person. Care providers need to examine both the nature of their client’s beliefs (religious, spiritual, or both) and what motivates them to be involved with a religious organization (intrinsic vs. extrinsic). Understanding the foundation of client’s beliefs will inform the care provider about how much these beliefs can be leveraged for maintaining or gaining new relationships and supports as they age.

Relationships & Religion

There are several important ways that religion and spirituality impact relationships in later life.

Religion as a source of Relational Values

The literature on older adults suggests that religious organizations are an important source of values. These shared values offer both the basis for mutual relationships as well as guidance as to how relationships should be conducted. Often defined by sacred texts with the concurrence of religious leaders, values reflected by religion are often one reason why young families join religious institutions, to bring up their children (Balboni et. al.,2017).


Religious beliefs may also help strengthen and fortify marital relationships. Research into older couples’ relationships suggest that religion can have a buffering effect between partners. “Associations between religiosity and marital outcomes…specifically increased church attendance and personal religiousness have been linked to lower risk of divorce and increased marital satisfaction” (Mahoney, Pargament, Tarakeshwar and Swank, 2001 p. 559). This is an important finding; however, other studies suggest that this is truer for women than in men within the relationship (Yorgason, 2015).

Religious Coping

A critical part of human relationships involves what psychologists would refer to as “coping.” Developing good coping mechanisms is key to addressing stressful situations and maintaining healthy relationships. Numerous studies have shown that one of the most important coping mechanisms can be religious coping. However, religion may not always have a positive effect on coping. For example, when faced with a major trauma, persons with an intrinsic faith may turn to their faith for support in coping whereas persons with an extrinsic faith will turn away from their faith.

Positive Religious Coping

Religion has been emerging as a primary coping device since the early 1990’s (Koenig, 2004). It has been suggested that religious coping can be the “strongest predictor of positive psychological changes in the aftermath of extremely stressful events” (Krumrei & Rosmarin, 2012, p.246). Kenneth Pargament (1998) suggests that “religious coping is multipurpose. It may provide comfort, stimulate personal growth, enhance a sense of intimacy with God, facilitate closeness with others, or offer meaning and purpose in life” (p. 116).

There are several different ways of employing religion in coping such as: spiritual support, congregational support, and benevolent religious reframing (Pargament, 1998).

Spiritual Support

Spiritual support suggests a partnership with God where the individual turns to God for help and support in challenging times. When this person prays he or she believes that God will respond and be supportive of whatever concern is being brought up (Pargament, 1998).

Congregational Support

The inter-human support from fellow believers can be uplifting both as the result of common values and beliefs as well as simply the nurturing that comes from people who care. While not every congregation is able to provide this for every individual, it is a common goal or aspiration of most congregations to offer this type of support to its members.

Benevolent Religious Reframing

Another way of employing religion in coping, referred to as benevolent religious reframing, suggests that religion allows the individual to reframe a painful event from being a human tragedy to become God’s will. By doing so, the individual is no longer alone in their suffering and may even find a companion in God to absorb some of the guilt or blame for the situation. This reframing allows the individual to feel the support of God rather than the alone feeling of working through a challenge by themselves.

Together, these three positive uses of religious coping suggest a relationality that is critical to finding the support that many people need at times of a crisis. However, researchers working in coping have found that any coping mechanism can be employed either positively or negatively.

Negative Religious Coping

Pargament, in his research, is quick to note that there are some harmful uses of religion. Religious institutions are composed of human beings, and not always as supportive of their members as one might hope. Negative responses to either God or a congregation can include dissatisfaction with a congregation or even a sense that either God or the congregation have abandoned them in their time of need. Not unlike the figure of Job in the Bible, people can feel abandoned or forgotten by God, particularly when they expect God to prevent something from happening and yet it happens anyway. Further, instead of reframing a human hurt into some type of support from God, an older person could assume that God has either actively attempted to harm them or at least simply ignored their pain (Pargament, 1997). Pargament concludes, “religious coping appears to affect the outcomes to negative life events. Sometimes it is helpful and other times it may be harmful” (Pargament & Brant, 1998, p. 124).

Caregiving Relationships – a demonstration of religious coping

One powerful example of the effect of religious coping is its impact on family relationships and caregiving. One of the most challenging times for relationships in later life comes when an older family member is faced with caregiving needs. A person’s religious beliefs impact their values and offer rules for how we respond to the needs of a family member. Religious coping offers a rich environment for practical application in this situation.

For example, when examining motivations for families to offer care for older adults, many religious traditions suggest that it is important to “Honor thy father and their mother” (Exodus 20:12) as found in the 10 Commandments. This can be interpreted as a commandment to care for aging parents that may also be reinforced by congregations and clergy as a value that is right to do. During employment of this commandment, the same individual may then feel that it is God’s will that she or he is engaged in what is often the hard work of family caregiving. In this process, the congregation may well offer considerable support for these activities.

However, as demonstrated in the discussion above on coping, there can be both positive as well as negative aspects. Epps’ 2015 study examines African American, Hispanic, as well as Caucasian families and challenges the assumption that religion is always a positive factor. Some approaches to religion and faith are more prone to bring out guilt as much as support for either the caregiver or the person in need of care. This guilt can lead to negative feelings and even resentment among family members who are asked to play the caregiving role.

Social Networks, Social Services, and Faith Communities

In addition to providing a framework and support for late life relation ships, religious organizations also provide practical support for relationships to develop. Faith communities provide significant social networks. These communities not only provide a place for people to join together, but also encourage socialization and support relationships.

Older persons involved in a faith community start with their faith tradition in common. Often this will include cultural variables as well, as many religious communities reflect a wide variety of cultural orientations. Having religious beliefs in common is especially important for an older person who is attempting to develop new relationships. For example, an older person moving to a new location can start with a local religious community and automatically have relationships with people they have something in common with.

It is not uncommon to find small groups within religious communities that are made up of older adults. In Christian Churches, often women’s groups, for example, will be largely made up of older women. The group may not be called a senior citizen group, but will function in that capacity (Tobin, Ellor, Anderson-Ray, 1986). Frequently, widows and widowers will also come together in congregational contexts, sitting together at meetings or worship and even offering rides to events for each other. Many religious communities and faith traditions have groups that expand beyond the local congregation. Lutheran church women, or Presbyterian men, for example, have national organizations that link the groups in local communities together for events, reading material, and other social functions. These groups can be an essential support for elders as they prevent social isolation and provide community and social interaction.

Faith communities may also serve as hosts for outside groups that provide social networks for older people outside of their worshipping congregation (Tobin, Ellor and Anderson Ray, 1986). Many non-faith-based services have found a home in religious organizations. For example, there are numerous religious congregations that have large rooms with a kitchen at one end that make attractive meal sites. Often an external group, often associated with the Area Agency on Aging, will run a meal site in the faith community’s kitchen. This way, the church is providing yet another opportunity for older adults to engage in social interactions and develop relationships.

In addition to serving as a host for social networks, religious organizations also play other important roles in sup-porting relationships for older adults. In their mixed methods saturation sample study of six communities ranging from urban to rural, Tobin, Ellor and Anderson Ray (1986) found that religious organizations also provide three other types of programs or services for older adults:

  • Providing religious programs
  • Providing pastoral care programs
  • Providing formal social services (p.32)

While the value of religious programs for promoting late life relationships seems obvious, the impact of formal and informal services on relationships is not as widely acknowledged. These programs and services play an important role in encouraging relationships with church members, as well as the Pastor of the church. Through these programs, church members are not only providing essential support, but also responding to the emotional and spiritual needs of the older adult.

Pastoral Care Programs

Pastoral care programs vary widely in religious congregations. They can be used to refer to any informal service found in a religious congregation including: rides to the doctor, informal counseling services of various types, or home visits by both clergy and lay persons. Any type of service that supports the person for socialization or connects them with others would all be included in this category. Often this type of support is set up in an informal way: If Mrs. Smith needs a ride to the doctor, she need only call Pastor Jones who will call Mr. Lang who will pick up Mrs. Smith and take her to the doctor. While this can be referred to as providing transportation services, there is no means test, no case file, no service agreement, but a vital service is provided to the older adult. In this way, religious groups are not only providing a needed service, but also creating positive relationships with church members.

Formal Social Services

Religious groups also function as formal service providers. Services might include: child and adult day care centers, senior centers, multi-purpose case management, and a variety of other formal services. Cnnan, Boddie, Handy, Yancey, and Schneider (2002) further found that religious organizations create agencies that assist in social welfare activities, especially in cities. In some cases, religious organizations have created services that have eventually separated from the church. Tobin, Ellor and Anderson-Ray (1986) observed that frequently when a religious congregation helps to create a social service, it is quickly spun off as its own 501c3 organization. If such agencies are staffed by clergy or visible laity from the sponsoring church(s), they tend to stay close to these organizations. However, when this bond is broken, it is not uncommon for the agency to drift away from the congregation to be anchored within the formal social service system.


Throughout the long history of research into the various impacts of religion on aging, there is considerable evidence to suggest that religion offers positive support for human interaction in later life. The trend in family research around religion and/or spirituality is that religion and spirituality enhance relationships (Epps, 2015).
In general, religion and spirituality, when shared, offer rules for how to get along with one another as well as external guidelines that can be turned to without invoking the other person in the relationship. If religion offers these rules or areas of agreement in a socially acceptable context, it serves a useful purpose. While these rules have historically been clear, religious research has become more of a challenge as more recent cohorts have shifted toward the concept of spirituality rather than religion. Because of the individual nature of spirituality, it is essential for care providers to understand their client’s beliefs and how these beliefs affect their relationships.

Religious institutions can be strong support networks that create community and foster relationships, especially for older people. However, the impact that religious and/or spiritual beliefs have on relationships in later life varies greatly depending on the individual. It is important for care providers to have a clear understanding of how to evaluate the importance of religion and spirituality and how these beliefs may have both positive and negative effects on relationships for older people.
For the current cohort of older adults, religious rules can often be viewed as spiritual support for relationships. However, as future generations embrace spirituality without always grounding it in the institutional, religious congregation’s greater disparity is likely to occur. Future research in this field may change as views become more individualized and less likely to be leveled by religious values.



One thought on “Late Life Relationships in Spiritual Perspective”

  1. ethan says:

    This article will help me a lot.
    Thanks for sharing.

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