Aging Parents–Aging Well: What do Nuns Have to do With It?


Nuns Crossing 5th Ave. in NYC Sunday morning after January 2016 Blizzard

Seeing these agile, apparently hardy nuns navigating snow and slush to cross 5th Avenue last Sunday, called to mind two highly-regarded, research studies on aging from the 1980’s: the Nun Study  and the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America.

Each provided new, different insights about aging. In the first study 180 Catholic nuns contributed autobiographies, handwritten when their mean age was 22. These “were scored for emotional content and related to survival during ages 75 to 95…..Positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later.”*

During the same period the MacArthur Foundation (which supported–and still supports aging research) presented its 1987 Study of Aging in America. It revolutionized the way people thought about aging, identifying successful aging as having three components: low risk of disease and disability; high mental and physical function; and active engagement with life, which I remember people calling “social connectedness.”

Seeing the nuns together last Sunday in the snow, triggered my long ago thinking about the MacArthur Foundation research and the Nun Study. Although I don’t remember an emphasis on “active engagement with life” in the Nun Study, I remember thinking at the time that nuns are part of a community experiencing  social connectedness and are actively engaged; and I wondered if that also helped them age well.

Today the importance of connections with others in helping people age well is well recognized. Nuns don’t have children, but they do have a community which supports and connects with them throughout life.

Our parents, on the other hand, have children, but their community–their supports–dwindle as they age, leaving lonely, unhappy elders with adult children who often live many miles away with job and family responsibilities. In addition, many parents don’t want to impose on their children “who have their own lives.” And few older people want to give up their homes and the independence that they feel, even when they could benefit from the extra help and socialization. (We all know this.) The question remains–What to do?

Six Suggestions

  1. Since we know connections are important for needed socialization and engagement, can we structure “connections” into a 7-day week– that take elders out of the house?
    –gift weekly hair appointments for women (monthly barber appointments for men) and–possibly on a different day–pedicures/manicures. We do the driving or arrange transportation.
    –plan several hours one day a week to shop for groceries, do errands etc. with aging parents. (We drive and also get our shopping done; a grandchild with a drivers license drives; we ask a friend and his/her mom/dad to join us for added socialization.
    –if church/temple/synagogue is an option, make certain parents are able to go once a week…carpool? go with family member(s) and trade off if appropriate.
  2. Structure daily connections into an aging person’s life: phone calls from family members meet this need. It helps if people have an assigned day. Some elders go for days without a phone call. (Email doesn’t replace a phone call; Skype may–depending on aging parents)
  3. Involving aging parents in our planning and decision-making validates their feeling of competence–of being needed. This can be accomplished through a phone call. It needn’t be a major decision. Emphasizing “I need your help” is the objective.
  4. Sharing our thoughts and feelings–with or without asking for input–is flattering to everyone, especially older people.
  5. Before taking any actions we need to ask ourselves: “Are we doing what’s best for our parents? Or are we doing what’s easier for us?
  6. Remember, aging parents, who are trying to do their best, may understandably be super-sensitive to any suspected hint of criticism or judgment when we make suggestions or take certain initiatives. This is one reason older parents may take suggestions from an outsider, especially a professional, more readily than from an adult child.

Since connections are essential, remind parents that touching base daily is important–not a burden. In the event it is a burden, set ground rules and maintain control. For example, establish a convenient time when you will touch base. If a daily phone call is problematic, vary it with a daily e-mail (if your parent uses technology) or daily fax. Neither involve conversation; can be sent at our convenience.

They also bring something into parents’ lives. Parents can read and reread and share them with others. While memories may fade, the information on an e-mail or fax can be retrieved when wanted. Additionally if parents have hearing loss, something in writing may well be preferable, if eyesight is good.

May these ideas add stimulation and connections to help parents age well.

Related: *The Nun Study has continued as a longitudinal study with a focus on healthy aging and Alzheimer’s. Most nuns agreed to brain donation after death. Read more:

MacArthur Foundation updates: and  

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well. 

2 thoughts on “Aging Parents–Aging Well: What do Nuns Have to do With It?

  1. Susan, This is great. I love the list. I’m officially saving it to share with my kids…..hopefully hopefully for later.

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