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Reviewed by:
  • Spirituality and Aging
  • Mary Beth Werdel (bio)
Spirituality and Aging. By Robert C. Atchley. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009 199 pp. Hardcover. $45.00.

This text is the outgrowth of Robert C. Atchley’s forty years of academic experience as a gerontologist, thirty of which focused specifically on the relationship of aging and spirituality as terms and phenomena. With a broad audience in mind, he offers clarity and authority for “spirituality . . . to be a major topic in gerontology in its own right” (149). In these 199 pages, Atchley describes a framework he considers to be a “useful starting point” for people in various aspects of the field: educators, researchers, and those working with the aging, thereby presenting one “example of how the jumble of concepts and empirical evidence in the field can be put together into a meaningful mosaic” (147). The text is suitable not only for gerontolgically-focused classes on both the undergraduate and graduate level, but also for graduate classes in fields such as pastoral care and counseling, mental health counseling, and social work.

The book is presented in three parts, followed by a conclusion and two appendices. The first section presents Atchley’s basic frame for understanding spirituality, spiritual development, spiritual experience and the spiritual self. The second section presents two dimensions of spirituality that Atchley sees as having key relationships with aging. First is the idea of sage-hood and being a spiritual elder. A sage is understood as a way of being; it is “not a destination at which we arrive but, rather, a capacity that we can bring into being in any moment” (73). Secondly he presents the model of “serving from the spirit,” a way of being based on transpersonal sociology and communities. Finally in section three the author examines the interactive relationships between spirituality and spiritual development as they pertain to three different areas: coping, the experience of time, and the experience of death and dying. Both appendices are rich additions to the text. [End Page 307] Appendix A is an 85-question (22-page) spiritual inventory in which respondents answer questions on a lickert-type scale. Appendix B is 3-page spiritual self-assessment structured with open-ended reflection questions. Both could be useful from academic, clinical, and personal standpoints.

Throughout the book, readers will find mention, and noted influences, of the works of William James, Robert Withnow, Erick Erikson, Lars Thornstam, Adlous Huxley, Harry Moody and David Carroll, Ram Dass, Ken Wilber, and Parker Palmer. Though the book expresses a specific disconnect from theology, readers will also find specific references to the Buddhist teachings of the Eight-fold path and the Wheel of Dharma.

Atchley’s definition of spirituality is key to understanding not only what to study in regard to spirituality and aging, but also how to study the relationship. He explains spirituality as that which “sensitizes us to a region of human experience” (5). Unlike “denotative” concepts that refer to an observable part of life, spirituality is a sensitizing concept that “deals with qualities to be sensitive to if we want to communication about a general field or region (5). Spirituality is a balance between being and doing (7). It is Atchley’s observation that individuals often lose sight of being and as such need help to bring this into consciousness. A main premise of his work is that spirituality is subjective but not individualistic; it is an “open-system” which necessitates discussion and feedback. The open-feedback system definition of spirituality supports Atchley’s Continuity Theory, which is presented in the book as a useful way of understanding the relationship between spirituality, development, and aging. Continuity Theory suggests that self-development is a continuous process; a person’s mental frame work is based on life experience; a person makes decisions based on their framework; they witness the results of their decision; modify their framework based on the observed results; and then make new decisions (53). With the above concepts in mind, research on spirituality then necessitates understanding not broad standardized relationships of spirituality and aging but rather how a person’s individual self-system evolves en route to becoming (or not becoming) spiritual...


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pp. 307-309
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