Silver spirituality: Reporting on religion and an aging population

Hooked up to multiple machines and attended around the clock by nurses at a hospice center outside Orlando, Florida, Janet Pedersen, 93, believes she is living her final days. 

The child of Danish Lutheran immigrants, Pedersen is rather stoic, “proud,” she says, “to have seen it all”: the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, Reaganomics (she’s got opinions), even angels. 

When asked about the angels, Pedersen said, “They are here at my bedside even now, watching over my path to heaven. 

“They’ve been with me my whole life,” she said. 

Pedersen is one of an estimated 16.79% of the U.S. population over the age of 65, according to the 2020 Census. And though she may not have long to live, many of the more than 55 million older persons in the U.S. will continue to impact politics, culture and religious traditions for years to come. 

In this ReligionLink source guide, we provide stories, statistics and sources for you to cover religion from the perspective of an aging population, with a particular emphasis on how religion affects older adults and how they, in turn, shape American religion. 


An aging population

According to the 2020 Census, the 65 and over cohort grew nearly five times faster than the total U.S. population over the last 100 years, reaching 55.8 million in 2020. That means today, 1 in 6 U.S. adults are now 65-plus.

This rapid growth was largely driven by aging baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who started turning 65 in 2011. By 2030, all baby boomers will be age 65 and over and, at that point, the growth in the older population is projected to start slowing.

But before, Travis Scholl of Lutheran Senior Services — one of America’s largest senior care and housing networks, based in St. Louis — said that the question looming over his industry is: What will we do with all the boomers?

“I think that goes for religious experience as much as anything else,” Scholl said. “For instance, chaplains in aging services are starting to think about how ministry with and to older boomers will look a lot different than previous generations.”

Does more religion mean better health? Longer life?

As Scholl surmised, religion, whether institutional or individualized, influences the health and well-being of populations across generations.

Aging populations worldwide, regardless of tradition, tend to show higher levels of religiosity than younger cohorts. And, there is evidence that higher levels of spirituality — in combination with other factors — have a salutary impact on later life health.

Whether it is attendance at worship services and the community it helps create, prayer or private practices, subjective feelings of faith or other behaviors, attitudes, beliefs or experiences, researchers surmise that religion impacts human mortality and life longevity.

Faith-based organizations can also contribute to the health of populations, especially through partnerships and alliances with medical institutions and public health agencies. These partnerships and alliances can include congregational health promotion and disease prevention programs as well as faith-based hospitals and clinics delivering healthcare, groups commenting on public health regulations, as well as those helping set public health policy and leading legislative advocacy.

Across the globe, religious institutions play a major role in global health development, public health infrastructure, environmental health needs and support during acute public health crises, such as infectious disease outbreaks.

Secular spirituality also plays a role in the aging process. Researchers from Syracuse University in New York have shown how “myth creation,” with or without religious affiliation or identification, enables humans to make meaning, especially in their last days.

Generational impacts on American religion

Older adults also play a significant role in shaping American religion. Sometimes literally, as church buildings are repurposed to serve aging populations.

By several measures, young adults tend to be less religious than their elders. The opposite, Pew Research Center data shows, is rarely true. Even though there can be a degree of religious switching among older populations and they are not as religious as we often assume, religion and spirituality remain relatively “sticky” among older adults, according to 2022 Pew data.

Regarding Christianity alone, Pew wrote:

Today, the average U.S. Christian is 43, compared with an average age of 33 among the unaffiliated and 38 among people of other religions. More than 80% of Americans older than 75 are Christian, compared with roughly half of people in their prime childbearing years (ages 20 to 34), many of whom will transmit their religion to the next generation, if past patterns hold.

Indeed, while Jewish affiliation trends toward the higher end of the age range, “no religious group has older members than white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

PRRI reported on this generational shift in religious identity in 2017:

The median age of white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics is 55 years old, slightly higher than white mainline Protestants at 54 years old. Unitarian-Universalists are also much older than members of other religious groups: The median age is 54 years.

More recently, political scientist and Baptist pastor Ryan Burge shared research on aging counties across the U.S., finding:

Catholics dominate in old counties. … Two evangelical groups follow: non-denominationals at six percent and Southern Baptists at five percent. The United Methodists are next at three percent. Then, there are a whole bunch at one percent or less. Three of these groups are from the mainline tradition: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Episcopal Church. But notice that all of these are basically Christian traditions.

As older Americans’ share of the religiously affiliated increases, persons 65 years and older will shape the character and contours of religious bodies across the US. Local congregations will continue to adjust as they serve older members, see an increase in end-of-life spiritual care and face the possibility of closure given an inadequate number of members or if they are unable to successfully navigate legacy gifts or estate planning among their aging membership.

Politically speaking, older adults are also a significant voting bloc. In the U.S., older citizens are the most likely to vote, which gives them political clout beyond their share of the population. In 2018, for example, around 64% of citizens age 65 and older cast their ballots in November elections, the best turnout of any age group.

Their religious identifications and perspectives, which tend to be more conservative and Christian, inform their politics and can shape US laws, policy and governance for decades beyond their life span.

Tips and story ideas

For reporters looking to report on American religion in view of an aging population, ReligionLink has a few story ideas and angles that you might consider:

  • Race and religious diversity — While a lot of attention can be given to older, white Christians, the 65-plus cohort is religiously and racially diverse. How might Black or Latino communities be uniquely impacted by aging populations? What of older Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus, witches and practitioners of Indigenous spirituality? Each of the following points could be explored according to tradition, widening the scope of coverage on such an important issue.
  • Boomer religion — Baby boomers came of age in the midst of one of the most pluralizing shifts in American religious history, experimenting with spirituality and switching religions at higher rates than generations before them. In other words: The children of the ’60s are in their 60s. What does that look like now, as they enter their twilight years? How is it impacting senior living centers and end-of-life care?
  • Older evangelical politics — As mentioned above, older adults tend to be more Christian than younger generations and turn out in higher numbers for voting. How is their vote impacting the shape of U.S. politics and the 2024 presidential race? Why do older evangelicals, in particular, seem to lean Republican and favor candidates like Donald Trump?
  • Estates and planned giving — Whether or not individuals leave legacy gifts can sometimes make or break a religious community. As older religious practitioners die, what do they pass on (or not) to their family of faith?
  • Secular seniors — Despite what many may think, being an older adult does not mean one is religious. What might secular seniors have to say about religion, spirituality and values at the end of life?
  • Views on aging and respecting elders — How do different traditions view the twilight years? How do younger generations interact with older adults or turn to them for wisdom? How might this impact services and practices? What about when a pandemic strikes? What resources or values do traditions draw on to protect vulnerable, older populations?
  • Declining denominations — Some Christian denominations are seeing a significant rise in the median age of their membership. The average individual in some Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran churches is over, or around, 60. How does that impact congregational life?
  • Retiring reverends — One implication of an aging population is the retirement of ministers, elders, teachers and other faith leaders. For example, Roman Catholic priests are not expected to retire until they are 75, but others are calling it quits at 65. Other religious groups are also wondering whether the age of retirement should be extended to be more in line with aging congregations and communities.
  • Intergenerational engagement — How are religious communities connecting across generations? What programs are in place for people from different age cohorts to interact? How might congregations and other religious gatherings adapt in order for generations to connect across the age gap?
  • Embracing older people — How are congregations adjusting their work to meet the needs of older adults and how are leaders being trained to serve the needs of congregations where older people predominate?
  • Care according to confession — How do assisted living, end-of-life and hospice care centers adjust their practices to individuals based on their beliefs and practices? What do faith-specific centers look like as they develop in places where such an infrastructure was previously unavailable (e.g., a Buddhist hospice-center in Berlin or a Muslim assisted living facility in Southern California)?
  • Older volunteers — At the same time, older religious adherents take on many important practical and other functions at the local level. But how are they being “put to work” and what is their impact on the community or younger generations in the temple, congregation or mosque?
  • Elderly evangelism — Proportionately, older adults go to houses of worship more than other age groups. But there are yet many who do not. Evangelism programs are popping up at retirement centers and hospitals, with neighbors looking to invite their fellow seniors to join them at church or in meditation. How might this kind of activity differ than what we typically imagine as “evangelism” among younger cohorts?

And here’s one more tip: Be careful with the language you use. According to Morgan Van Vleck at the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, newspaper headlines and academic studies can unknowingly reinforce negative stereotypes about older adults in their copy.

Words to be generally avoided include “elder” or “elderly” or “the aged.” Newsroom style guides typically advise against these terms because they can lead to othering of, and bias against, older adults. More neutral and preferred terms include “older adult, “older person” or “persons over 65.” Fatalistic or negative phrases like “silver tsunami” should be avoided, in favor of phrases like “growth of the aging population.”

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Before 2019

Potential sources and experts

  • Kristine Ajrouch

    Kristine J. Ajrouch is professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University. She is also adjunct research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Her research has focused on Arab Americans in the U.S., beginning with ethnic identity formation among adolescent children of immigrants, followed by a focus on aging from the perspective of older adults in the metro Detroit Arab American and Muslim communities.

  • Ryan Burge

    Ryan Burge studies the intersection of religious beliefs and political behavior and is an expert on survey methodology. He teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University.

  • Centre for Ageing Better

    The Centre for Agening Better is an agency in the United Kingdom dedicated to informing the public about issues related to ageism and addressing discrimination and prejudice on the premise of someone’s age.

  • Linda M. Chatters

    Linda M. Chatters is a professor in the department of health behavior and health education, School of Public Health, and professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. The focus of Chatters’ research is the study of adult development and aging in relation to the mental and physical health status and functioning of older people in a variety of social contexts (i.e., the family, church and community).

  • Clare & Jerry Rotenberg Institute on Aging

    The Clare & Jerry Rotenberg Institute on Aging is a knowledge hub promoting all aspects of positive aging — physical, social, emotional and spiritual — from a Jewish perspective in the greater Rochester, New York, area.

  • Anna Dadswell

    Anna Dadswell is a research fellow in the School of Allied Health and Social Care at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, U.K. She is co-author of “The Role of Religion, Spirituality and/or Belief in Positive Ageing for Older Adults” in the journal Geriatrics. For inquiries, contact the university press office.

  • Lynn Casteel Harper

    Lynn Casteel Harper is an essayist, Baptist minister and chaplain. Her debut book, On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, investigates the myths and metaphors surrounding dementia and aging.

  • Ellen L. Idler

    Ellen L. Idler is director of Emory University’s Religion and Public Health Collaborative and is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Sociology at Emory. Idler researches population aging, religion and public health, and end-of-life decision-making.

  • Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington

    Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington provides a wide range of services for seniors and their family members, as well as intergenerational programs that build bridges between young students and older adults.

  • Jane Kuepfer

    Jane Kuepfer is the Schlegel Specialist in Spirituality and Aging at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging.
  • Christine Lawton

    Christine Lawton is a Christian educator who has served as youth and family minister in various churches, teacher in Christian schools and trainer in retirement communities. She is co-author of Intergenerational Christian Formation, which focuses on intergenerational Christian education.

  • Jeff Levin

    Jeff Levin is professor of epidemiology, population health and medical humanities as well as director of the Program on Religion and Population Health at Baylor University. His work helped pioneer the study of religion and health.

  • Joanna Malone

    Joanna Malone is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of York, where she investigates the role of religion in the work that schools do to foster notions of citizenship and national identity, how children and their parents experience these processes and what this means for children’s sense of belonging in wider society. She is co-author of “The Role of Religion, Spirituality and/or Belief in Positive Ageing for Older Adults” in the journal Geriatrics.

  • Usha Menon

    Usha Menon is professor of anthropology at Drexel University. Menon has written extensively on different aspects of Hindu society and civilization, in particular on goddess worship, family dynamics, gender relations, Hindu morality, Hindu women and liberal feminism and Hindu-Muslim religious violence. She also curated and published the collection “Old Age and Hinduism” for Oxford Bibliographies.

  • Holly Nelson-Becker

    Holly Nelson-Becker is a professor in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work. Her research focuses on aging, loss, grief, palliative and end-of-life care, as well as wisdom and virtue in varying traditions.

  • Kaya Oakes

    Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright and Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church and regularly publishes articles and essays on religion, such as pieces on aging in congregational life. She is also a writing instructor at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • Douglas Penick

    Douglas Penick is a widely published author and opera-writer who has written on the theme of aging and Buddhist principles for Tricycle magazine. Contact through webpage.

  • Travis Scholl

    Travis Scholl is director of mission integration at Lutheran Senior Services, operating senior living communities in St. Louis. He is also the author of Walking the Labyrinth.

  • Shepherd’s Centers of America

    Shepherd’s Centers of America is an interfaith network of community-based groups in 21 states caring for older adults. Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the organization was begun by the Rev. Elbert C. Cole, whose wife had dementia for 17 years before she died.

  • Zachary Zimmer

    Zachary Zimmer holds the Canada Research Chair in Aging and Community at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His research very broadly focuses on global issues related to the well-being of older people, studied from a demographic perspective.

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