Translating Dr. Susan McFadden’s lecture on spirituality and aging from English for a German speaking group of gerontologists and theologians here in Switzerland changed my life. Susan went way over my theological head in her lecture about the psychological aspects of aging, dementia, and Alzheimer. Then she encouraged me to read into the cognitive psychology of religion and vitalized my interest in spirituality and embodiment. Not merely the academic rigor of her work impressed me; the practical applications she stressed in her talk stuck in my mind. Little did I know that I was about to apply Susan McFadden’s hypothesis and arguments and that her lecture would be the beginning of research in the field of spiritual formation in the third and fourth ages.
One regular day, returned from an international conference, no rest, lecturing on spirituality for theology students in Zurich, my assistant informed me I had a phone call. My husband was on edge, saying his father, Oskar, who was 83 and a cancer patient with dementia, was found unconscious. The hospital was happy to release Oskar but not to ever return to his apartment alone again. In a split second, we decided to invite my father-in-law to live with us. It was a life changing moment.
Encouraged by Susan McFadden’s work, the time spent with my father-in-law was also a semi-conscious exploration of a hypothesis brewing inside me: although memory may be failing, the emotional IQ of a person in the fourth age is usually intact. Therefore, aging people are well capable of learning, and a negative spiritual habitus can be transformed into an experience of well-being. Assuming that spiritual formation is not limited to any natural life-phase, I saw an intersection between spirituality and cognitive faculties with belief formation as such in the back of my mind. What leads an elderly patient to speak about spiritual things or re-learn them? What spiritual practices can be appropriated to enhance spiritual formation in the third and fourth ages of a human life?
The Apostle Paul’s claimed, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another,” (2 Cor. 2:18). It made sense in my pastoral work with children, youth, and young adults, but my colleagues and I back away from spiritual formation with people over forty. These people only need spiritual food. Right?
Theology and Psychology, Learning and Spiritual Formation
A conflict between my husband and I grew because my father-in-law lived in front of his TV for years. A caregiver helped him with hygiene once a day, and meals were brought to him for a few days at a time. Between these major life events, my father-in-law sat in front of his TV. Since in our marriage, we never owned a TV, and my husband felt his father needed one – absolutely – we argued about it.
Here is where Susan McFadden’s teaching, the work of William D. Roozeboom, and Kirk A. Bingaman on neuroplasticity and performativity for spiritual care began to form me.
Oskar was willing to experiment with his five senses that were completely healthy. We changed little things that supported him to explore his senses. For instance, when the fog rolled in from the Alps at night, I turned off all of the lights and sat with him in front of our window instead of reading. He was completely amazed and fascinated – watching – happy. When my husband came home and turned on the lights, Oskar told him to turn them off and join us. My husband rediscovered our fireplace and father and son watched the flames together, night after night.
We also experimented with scents and food – like puffy, crispy pappadams – which he loved. Unfamiliar sounds took on odd shapes. Oskar heard our heating system as the train that passed his apartment. Surprisingly, when my husband arrived home with a TV, Oskar said he would not need that.
A Door to Lived Spirituality
Oskar watched nature for hours, experienced tastes, smells, and walked around touching things. He entered the door to this new world and wanted to share it with us. He named the birds in the forest across from our house and was concerned when one did not get home before dark. Discovering his feelings, he also opened up about his joys and fears, about death, health, and illness, love and losses. We listened as Oskar explored his spirituality. He was agnostic, not a practicing Christianity, although he grew up Catholic. His belief system was less and less taboo.
Finally, when the cancer made him bed-ridden, my father-in-law asked my husband to read him the Psalms and books about Austria where he grew up. Oskar wanted to re-learn to pray. When he passed away, he was truly at peace with us and life.
Neuroplasticity and Spiritual Formation in the Third and Fourth Age
Others opened my journey and research interest in spiritual formation in the third and fourth age. The process of spiritual formation described by scholars in the field of cognitive psychology of religion requires critical analysis to adapt it to theology and theories of Christian spiritual formation. To understand neuroplasticity and its relation to practices and that new synapses in our brains are not limited by age has had fascinating implications for my theology and practical work. People learn, change, and are transformed – habitus is fluid. So what spiritual practices are useful for spiritual care, formation, and well-being in the fourth and fifth age? What are the boundaries of spiritual care and neighbor love in our secular pluralist Western social systems and for sharing Christ?
Dr. Rebecca A. Giselbrecht, Ph.D, M.Div, is a plenary speaker at the 7th International Conference on ageing and spirituality.