Women religious show by example how to age gracefully

| Sarah Hinds | February 25, 2015 | 0 Comments


The lives of religious sisters not only offer an example of holy living, but also healthy aging, according to recent studies.

Several years ago, researcher David Snowdon published a book often dubbed “The Nun Study,” which revealed that women religious generally live longer than other women.

The 2001 book, “Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us about Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives,” is based on the study of 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame from a number of U.S. convents.

Snowdon reviewed autobiographies written by the sisters when they first took their vows and observed the lives of elderly sisters over a period of 15 years. He also conducted cognitive and physical tests to test memory and mental ability.

He determined that those who maintained a positive outlook throughout life and remained mentally and physically active tended to live longer and avoid Alzheimer’s disease.

Although that study is more than a decade old, recent studies continue to confirm Snowdon’s conclusions.

In 2009, Marc Luy of Austria’s Vienna Institute of Demography wrote the “Cloister Study” based on data of 11,624 monks and nuns from southern Germany. He concluded that one’s lifestyle has a greater impact on aging and lifespan than biological or hereditary factors.

Researchers and religious sisters themselves agree that staying active and positive are the keys to aging well.

Carmelite Sister M. Benedicta, vicar general of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus in Sittard, Netherlands, attributes prayer as the key to aging gracefully.

“Prayer is the foundation,” she said. “We believe that each soul is simply a capacity for grace of God’s life within us.”

She said divine power is “unleashed” in believers and sets them free to do God’s will without “fear of pain, vulnerability and even death.”

“We see our own elderly sisters actively participating in community prayer, household tasks, corresponding with the lonely, or whatever else they are capable of doing, but never idle,” she said.

Anna Corwin, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles, has also studied the aging of religious women, and her results echo previous studies.

Corwin spent 11 months living in a convent, observing how the lifestyles of women religious affect their aging.

“American Catholic nuns experience greater physical and emotional well-being at the end of life than other women and are 27 percent more likely to live into their 70s,” Corwin wrote in a 2013 article for Yes! Magazine.

“The remarkable pattern of longevity, joy and peace they experience in their final years offers insight into how we can all increase our health and happiness at the end of life,” she added.

One factor consistent in the studies is exercise.

“Nuns are always on their feet,” Corwin observed, and Snowdon wrote in his book’s conclusion that finding a physical activity that is enjoyable and doing it regularly is “one of the best things a person can do to age well.”

A positive outlook, maintained through prayer and almsgiving, also is key.

“Emotions like happiness, fear, anger and sadness affect heart rate, blood pressure, immune response and even digestion,” wrote Corwin. “Nuns enjoy the benefits of positive emotions because their daily prayers lead them to feel love, joy and compassion.”

Corwin also noted that most of the time, the sisters’ sense of purpose and willingness to contribute to the world and help others enhanced quality of life at an older age.

She also credited the sisters’ skill in letting go of attachments, pointing out that when they “move to the infirmary or to the assisted-living wing of the convent, they do so with much less strife than lay people.”

The lifestyles of women religious, often rooted in prayer, community and serving others, provide a helpful roadmap to people who want to be happy and fulfilled in their later years.

Of course, all these actions are rooted in prayer, as Sister Benedicta noted.

“As Carmelites, we regard prayer as our first apostolate,” she said. “So even when we are bedridden, nothing keeps us from this most important duty of interceding for the world.”

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Category: From Age to Age