Article

Religion, Meaning in Life, and Change in Physical Functioning During Late Adulthood

Journal of Adult Development (Impact Factor: 0.69). 09/2012; 19(3):158-169. DOI: 10.1007/s10804-012-9143-5

ABSTRACT

This study has two primary goals. The first is to see whether select aspects of religion are associated with meaning in life. The second goal is to see whether change in meaning in life is associated with change in physical functioning. Data from a nationwide longitudinal survey of older people provide support for the following relationships: (1) older adults who attend church services more often tend to develop a closer relationship with God; (2) older people who have a closer relationship with God are more likely to provide emotional support to others; (3) elders who give emotional support to their social network members are more likely to have a stronger sense of meaning in life; and (4) older individuals who have a deeper sense of meaning in life are less likely to experience a decline in their physical functioning over time.

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The original publication is available at www.springerlink.com.
Religion, Meaning in Life, and
Change in Physical Functioning
During Late Adulthood
Neal Krause
R. David Hayward
University of Michigan
This is a postprint copy of an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Adult
Development.
Krause, N., & Hayward, R. D. (2012). Religion, meaning in life, and change in physical
functioning during late adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 19(3), 158-169. doi:
10.1007/s10804-012-9143-5
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Abstract
This study has two primary goals. The first is to see if select aspects of religion are associated
with meaning in life. The second goal is to see if change in meaning in life is associated with
change in physical functioning. Data from a nationwide longitudinal survey of older people
provide support for the following relationships: (1) older adults who attend church services more
often tend to develop a closer relationship with God, (2) older people who have a closer
relationship with God are more likely to provide emotional support to others; (3) elders who give
emotional support to their social network members are more likely to have a stronger sense of
meaning in life, and (4) older individuals who have a deeper sense of meaning in life are less
likely to experience a decline in their physical functioning over time.
Key words: meaning, religion, functional disability
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A number of researchers maintain that one of the primary functions of religion is to help
people find a sense of meaning in life (e.g., Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009). The emphasis on
meaning is important because research indicates that a strong sense of meaning in life is
associated with a range of health outcomes including better self-rated health (Krause, 2004),
enhanced psychological well-being (Steger & Frazier, 2005), a lower risk of experiencing major
depression and anxiety (Sternthal, Williams, Music, & Buck, 2010), the adoption of beneficial
health behaviors (Homan & Boyatzis, 2010), and avoidance of alcohol (Krause, 2003).
The purpose of the current study is to explore the relationships among religious
involvement, meaning in life, and health. In the process, an effort is made to contribute to the
literature in three potentially important ways.
First, a conceptual model is developed to show one way in which key facets of religion
shape a sense of meaning in life. Having a close relationship with God and providing social
support to others play an especially important role in this respect.
Second, most of the studies in this field have been designed to show how religion and
meaning in life affect mental health outcomes, while fewer studies focus specifically on physical
health. And even when physical health serves as the dependent variable, measures of self-rated
health are often used. The data for the current study were provided by a nationwide sample of
older people. A physical health outcome is evaluated that is especially relevant for this
population - functional disability. There do not appear to be any studies in the literature that
assess the relationships among religion, meaning in life, and this aspect of health.
Third, the majority of the studies on religion, meaning in life, and health are based on
cross-sectional research designs. The data for the current study were gathered at two points in
time. This makes it possible to see if change in meaning in life is associated with change in
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functional disability over time.
The relationships among religion, meaning in life, and health are evaluated in this study
with a latent variable model. This conceptual scheme is presented in the discussion that is
provided below. Following this, an effort is made to show why it is important to focus on
religion, meaning, and health in samples that are comprised of older people.
Religion, Meaning in Life, and Health
The latent variable model that is assessed in this study is presented in Figure 1. Two steps
were taken to simplify the presentation of this conceptual scheme. First, the elements of the
measurement model (i.e., the factor loadings and measurement error terms) are not shown in this
figure even though a full measurement model was specified when this conceptual scheme was
actually estimated. Second, age, sex, and education were included as exogenous demographic
control variables when the study model was estimated. However, these variables are not depicted
in Figure 1.
<Insert Figure 1 about here>
Although a number of relationships will be evaluated among the constructs in Figure 1,
the following linkages capture the core theoretical thrust of this conceptual scheme: (1) older
adults who attend church services more often tend to develop a closer relationship with God, (2)
older people who have a closer relationship with God are more likely to provide emotional
support to others; (3) elders who give emotional support to their social network members are
more likely to have a stronger sense of meaning in life, and (4) older individuals who have a
deeper sense of meaning in life are less likely to experience a decline in their physical
functioning over time. The theoretical rationale for each of these relationships is provided below.
Church Attendance and a Close Relationship With God
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Recently, Lundberg (2010) scoured the texts of every major religion in the world in order
to identify the common beliefs they all share. One shared belief is especially relevant for the
current study. Lundberg (2010) reports that, “The world religions tell us that life’s purpose is to
live .... in an intimate relationship with God” (p. 15). However, it is not entirely clear how a close
relationship with God is developed and maintained. Although older people may develop a close
relationship with God in a number of ways, attending worship services may play an important
role in this process. A number of core religious beliefs are identified and reinforced through the
sermons, hymns, and group prayers that constitute a typical worship service. And as Stark and
Finke (2000) point out, these worship services play a key role in shaping the beliefs of those who
participate in them: “Confidence in religious explanations (i.e., beliefs) increases to the extent
that people participate in religious rituals” (p. 107). If church services enforce religious beliefs,
and if the importance of having a close relationship with God is a core religious belief, then it
follows that older people who attend church more often should report having a closer
relationship with God than older adults who do not go to worship services as often.
A Close Relationship with God and Helping Others
Developing a close relationship with God entails certain responsibilities and obligations.
As Koenig (1994) points out, an important responsibility is to follow God’s commandments and
laws. One of the most important laws is in many faith traditions is to provide help to people who
are in need. Down through the ages, theologians and scholars have reinforced this view.
Evidence of this may be found, for example, in the Didache, which is a document that was
written by the early Christians in about 200 C.E. This document unequivocally states that helping
others is one of the most important of God’s laws: “For the Father wants his own gifts to be
universally shared. Happy is the man who gives as the commandment bids him, for he is
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guiltless!” (Richardson, 1996, p. 171). Similarly, John Calvin (1536/2006) taught that, “... all the
endowments which we possess are divine deposits entrusted to us for the very purpose of being
distributed for the good of our neighbors” (p. 86). More recently, Lundberg (2010) reports that,
“Every religion asks us to do what we can for those in need” (p. 255). So if helping others is one
of God’s chief laws, and people who feel close to God are duty bound to follow His laws, then
older people who report having a close relationship with God should provide more social support
to others than older adults who do not feel as close to God.
Helping Others and Meaning in Life
Meaning in life is notoriously difficult to define. Even so, most scholars would agree that
it entails a sense of, “ ...order, coherence, and purpose in one’s existence, the pursuit and
attainment of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of fulfillment” (Reker, 2000, p. 41).
A key issue involves determining how a sense of purpose arises and how people come to believe
that what they do is worthwhile. The work of Baumeister (1991) provides a useful point of
departure for addressing this challenge. As he puts it, people need to feel, “.... that their actions
are right and good and justifiable” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 36). Religious teachings are codes or
standards that define which specific thoughts and actions are right, good, and justifiable. But
merely endorsing these values is not sufficient for attaining one of the key aspects of meaning - a
sense of purpose. Instead, as Krause (2004) maintains, a sense of purpose arises from
successfully implementing, executing, and complying with these core tenets. To the extent this is
true, successfully implementing core religious teachings about helping others should provide
older people with a sense of purpose and it should help them feel that what they do is
worthwhile. And if people feel this way should, by definition, have a strong sense of meaning in
life.
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Meaning in Life and Health
There are at least four ways in which as strong sense of meaning can bolster and maintain
health in late life. First, if an older person has found a sense of meaning in life, then they are more
likely to take steps to insure they stay alive. This can be accomplished by engaging in beneficial
health behaviors (Homan& Boyatzis, 2010) and avoiding health behaviors that are undesirable
(Krause, 2003). Second, there is some evidence that older people who have developed a strong
sense of meaning are able to cope more successfully with the unwanted stressors that arise life
(Krause, 2007). This perspective is consistent with the widely cited views of Victor Frankl
(1959/1985), who maintained that, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so
effectively help one survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in
one’s life” (p. 126). Third, as Ryff and Singer (1998) point out, people with a greater sense of
meaning in life tend to enjoy better health because meaning may have direct physiological effects
on the body. More specifically, these investigators maintain that meaning may improve health by
enhancing immune functioning. Fourth, a rapidly developing body of research links terror
management theory with religion (Vail et al., 2010). According to this perspective, awareness of
death can instill an overwhelming sense of terror and anxiety. As Vail and his colleagues point
out, a religiously-motivated sense of meaning can provide a powerful antidote to feelings of terror
that are associated with death. In contrast, the mental health problems that are associated with
death may continue unabated. These psychological problems are important because extensive
research reveals that mental health problems are, in turn, associated with more physical health
problems (Cohen & Rodriguez, 1995).
A significant feature of the model depicted in Figure 1 arises from the fact that an
emphasis is placed on evaluating the relationship between meaning in life and health with data
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that have been gathered are more than one point in time. As Menard (1991) points out, there are a
number of ways to analyze this type of survey data. In fact, he identifies four “pure” longitudinal
models (Menard, 1991, p. 59). The model depicted in Figure 1 is among them. In this type of
conceptual scheme, change in the dependent variable is expressed in terms of change in the value
of the independent variable. The logic of this specification is straightforward: if the level of one
variable (i.e., functional disability) depends upon the level of a second variable (i.e., meaning in
life), then if the second variable changes, the first variable must also change. Menard (1991) goes
on to point out that many researcher express their hypotheses in terms of this model but
unknowingly test a different specification.
Exploring Age-Related Issues
As noted earlier, the sample for this study consists solely of older adults. Consequently, it
is not possible to empirically evaluate change in the study constructs over the life course. Even so,
it is important to show why the relationships in Figure 1 take on added significance in late life.
There are three reasons why the model that is evaluated in this study is especially relevant for
studying older people.
First, a number of researchers report that people who are presently older are more deeply
involved in religion than individuals who are currently younger. For example, based on the
findings from seven nationwide surveys, Barna (2002) reports older adults are more likely than
younger people to attend worship services, read the Bible, pray, and they are more likely to report
that religion is an important part of their lives. So if religion influences a sense of meaning in life
and if older adults are more involved in religion than younger individuals, then it may be
especially important to evaluate the relationship between religion and meaning in samples that are
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comprised of older people.
Second, a number of researchers maintain that deriving a deep sense of meaning takes on
added importance in the final decades of life. Erikson (1959) is perhaps the most widely known
proponent of this view. According to Erikson’s (1959) theory of life course development, the life
span is divided into eight stages. Each stage presents a person with a unique developmental
challenge. The final stage is characterized by the crisis of integrity versus despair. This is a time
of deep introspection when the individual begins to accept the kind of person they have become
over the years. This is accomplished by reconciling what one set out to do in life with what they
have actually been able to achieve. If this crisis is resolved successfully, older people develop a
deep sense of meaning in life, but if it is not resolved successfully, they slip into despair. Similar
views may be found in Tornstam’s (2005) theory of gerotranscendence. Tornstam (2005) argues
that as people approach late life they become less self-centered and more altruistic, the
importance of material things fades, and they strive to develop a greater sense of oneness with the
universe. If Erikson (1959) is correct in arguing that meaning takes on added importance in late
life and if Tornstam’s (2005) assertion that people become more altruistic as they get older, then
studying the relationship between meaning in life and helping others should take on added
significance as people grow older.
Third, a vast number of studies conclusively indicate that physical health problems
escalate dramatically in late life. For example, the prevalence of heart disease, most types of
cancer, and a wide range of chronic conditions is much higher among older than among younger
individuals (National Center for Health Statistics, 2010). Moreover, health care costs for elders
are approximately three times greater than health care costs for young people (National Center for
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Health Statistics, 2010). So if meaning in life is associated with health, and health problems are
especially evident in late life, then exploring the relationship between meaning and health in
samples of older people holds out of the promise of finding new ways to reduce the burden of
health care costs in our society.
Methods
Sample
The data for this study come from a nationwide longitudinal survey of older adults.
Altogether, six waves of interviews were conducted. The study population was defined as all
household residents who were non-institutionalized, English-speaking, 65 years of age or older,
and retired (i.e., not working for pay). In addition, residents of Alaska and Hawaii were excluded
from the study population.
The sampling frame consisted of all eligible persons contained in the beneficiary list
maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Study participants were
selected at random from the CMS files. All interviews were conducted face-to-face in the homes
of the respondents by interviewers from Harris Interactive (New York). The first three waves of
data were collected between 1992 and 1999. A total of 1,103 interviews were completed at the
baseline in 1992-1993. The response rate was 69.1%. Following this, 605 of the Wave 1 study
participants were re-interviewed in 1996-1997. Then, a third wave of interviews was conducted in
1998-1999. A total of 530 older people who participated in earlier rounds of interviews were
successively re-interviewed at Wave 3.
In 2002-2003, a fourth wave of interviews was conducted. However, the sampling strategy
for the Wave 4 survey was complex. Two groups of older people were interviewed at this time.
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All survivors from Waves 1-3 were interviewed first (N = 269). This group was then
supplemented with a sample of new older adults who had not been interviewed previously. This
supplementary sample was also selected at random from the CMS files. However, in this case, an
effort was made to select the sample so that there would be approximately equal numbers of older
people in the following age groups: Young-old (ages 65-74, N = 491); old-old (ages 75-84; N =
515); and the oldest-old (ages 85 and older; N = 509). Altogether, the Wave 4 sample consisted of
1,518 older adults. The overall response rate for the Wave 4 survey was 54%.
A fifth wave of interviews was completed in 2005. A total of 1,166 of the Wave 4 study
participants were successfully re-interviewed. Not counting those who had moved to a nursing
home or had died, the re-interview rate for the Wave 5 survey was 83.9%.
Wave 6 was completed in 2007. A total of 1,011 older people were re-interviewed at this
time. Not counting older adults who had moved to a nursing home or older people who died, the
re-interview rate for Wave 6 was 76.9% of the older people who participated at Wave 5.
The analyses that are provided below are based on data from the Wave 5 and Wave 6
interviews. These interviews were selected because questions on religion were administered for
the first time at Wave 5.
The full information maximum likelihood (FIML) procedure was used to deal with item
non-response (Enders, 2010). Simulation studies reveal that the FIML procedure produces
estimates that are comparable to those that are derived with more time consuming techniques,
such as multiple imputation (Newman, 2003).
Preliminary analysis reveals that the average age of the participants in this study is 79.1
years (SD = 7.4), 37 percent were older men, and the study participants completed, on average,
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12.3 years of schooling (SD = 3.4 years).
Measures
Table 1 contains the survey items that were used to measure the core measures in Figure 1.
The procedures that were used to code responses to these questions are provided in the footnotes
of this table.
<Insert Table 1 about here>
Functional Disability. Functional disability was assessed at the Wave 5 and Wave 6
interviews with 15 items that were taken from the work of Liang (1990). Indicators of
instrumental activities of daily living (IADL) as well as activities of daily living (ADL) are
included in this index. These measures assess whether older people have any difficulty
performing each task. A high score denotes greater difficulty with ADL and IADL tasks. The
study participants reported they had difficulty performing an average of 2.9 activities (SD = 3.3
activities) at Wave 5 and an average of 3.9 activities (SD = 3.8 activities) at Wave 6.
Church Attendance. A single widely-used indicator was used to assess how often the older
people in this study attend worship services. This indicator was taken from the Wave 5 survey. A
high score denotes more frequent church attendance. The average church attendance score was
5.6 (SD = 2.8).
Close Relationship with God. Three indicators were used to assess the extent to which
older study participants believe they have a close relationship with God. As shown in Table 1,
these indicators assess whether older people feel that God is right there with them every day, that
God listens when they talk to Him, and that they have a close relationship with God. These items
were devised by Krause (2002). A high score stands for older people who have a closer
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relationship with God. The mean value of this brief index at Wave 5 is 10.3 (SD = 2.0).
Providing Emotional Support to Others. Four items were included in the Wave 5 survey to
determine how often study participants provide emotional support to family members and close
friends. These indicators were developed by Krause and Markides (1990). A high score means
that respondents provide support to others more frequently. The mean at Wave 5 is 10.3 (SD =
3.1).
Meaning in Life. Identical measures of meaning were administered in the Wave 5 and
Wave 6 surveys. These items were designed to capture four dimensions of meaning. The first has
to do with having a system of values, which guide and direct behavior. In a world where the
utility and worthiness of specific thoughts and actions are often unclear, values provide the basis
for selecting among different options by giving the assurance that personal choices are the right
ones. The second dimension of meaning has to do with having a sense of purpose in life.
Although clearly linked to values, a sense of purpose is conceptually distinct. As noted earlier, a
sense of purpose arises from acting upon these values and subsequently seeing how these
behaviors fit appropriately into the larger, and more important social whole. A sense of meaning
also involves expectations for the future and arises from having goals to strive for. Goals help
organize current activities and help channel energies and ambitions. Although they are guided by
values, goals are targets for future concrete behaviors that represent the implementation or
manifestation of values. As discussed by Krause (2004), the final component of meaning involves
the ability to reconcile events that have happened in the past. Consistent with the work of Erikson
(1959), this involves looking backward in time and seeing how events that have arisen fit into a
larger plan and form a more coherent life story. This helps older people find a reason for their
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existence and imparts a sense that the trials they have faced were worth the efforts that were
expended to grapple with them.
The four dimensions of meaning were assessed with items that were taken from the work
of others (i.e., Battista & Almond, 1973; Wong, 1998) as well as indicators that were developed
by Krause (2004). A short form of a larger index that was devised with these indicators is used in
the analyses presented below. The abbreviated version was created by conducting a confirmatory
factor analysis (not shown here) and selecting two indicators that best measure each of the four
dimensions of meaning. The correlation between the short eight-item version and the longer
sixteen-item version of the meaning scale is .979 (p < .001). The two indicators for each
dimension of meaning were added together, resulting in four composite measures. The composite
measures were treated as four observed indicators of the latent construct that reflects a sense of
meaning in life (see Liang, Lawrence, Bennett, & Whitelaw, 1990, for a discussion of the use of
composite measures in latent variable modeling). A high score on this scale represents a deeper
sense of meaning in life. The mean at Wave 5 is 27.7 (SD = 3.9) and the mean at Wave 6 is 27.3
(SD = 4.1).
Demographic Control Measures. The relationships among the constructs in Figure 1 were
evaluated when the effects of age, sex, and education were taken into account. Age is scored
continuously in years. The measure of education reflects the total number of years of schooling
that was completed successfully by study participants. In contrast, sex is measured with a binary
indicator that contrast older men (scored 1) with older women (scored 0).
Results
The findings from this study are presented below in three sections. Several issues about
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the way in which the study model was estimated are discussed in the first section. Data on the
reliability of the multiple item constructs is presented in section two. Section three contains the
substantive findings this study.
Model Development Issues
The model depicted in Figure 1 was evaluated with the maximum likelihood estimator in
Version 8.80 of the LISREL statistical software program (du Toit and du Toit, 2001). Use of this
estimator is based on the assumption that the observed indicators have a multivariate normal
distribution. Preliminary tests (not shown here) revealed that this assumption had been violated in
the current study. Although there are a number of ways to deal with departures from multivariate
normality, the straightforward approach that is discussed by du Toit and du Toit (2001) was
followed here. These investigators report that departures from multivariate normality can be
handled by converting the raw scores of the observed indicators to normal scores prior to
estimating a model (du Toit and du Toit 2001, p.143). Based on these insights, the analyses
presented below are based on observed indicators that have been normalized.
As discussed above, meaning in life was assessed at two points in time. Consequently, two
issues involving the measurement of this construct must be addressed so that the model with the
best fit to the data can be identified. The first has to do with seeing whether the measurement
error terms for identical indicators of meaning are correlated over time. Preliminary tests (not
shown here) reveal that the measurement error terms are significantly correlated over time. The
second issue has to do with assessing factorial invariance over time (Bollen, 1989). Tests for
factorial invariance are performed in order to see if the elements of the measurement model (i.e.,
the factor loadings and measurement error terms) are the same over time for the meaning in life
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items. Preliminary tests (not shown here) indicate that neither the factor loadings nor the
measurement error terms are invariant over time. The impact of not finding factorial invariance
over time is difficult to discern. However, this issue should be kept in mind as the findings from
this study are reviewed.
Because the FIML procedure was used to deal with item non-response, the LISREL
software program provides only two goodness-of-fit measures. The first is the full information
maximum likelihood chi-square (421.765 with 147 degrees of freedom, p < .000). Unfortunately,
this statistic tends to underestimate the fit of the model to the data when samples are large, such as
the sample in the current study. Better insight into the fit of the model to the data is provided by
the second goodness-of-fit measure - the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA). The
RMSEA value for the model in Figure 1 is .043. As Kelloway (1998) suggests, values below .05
indicate a very good fit of the model to the data.
Reliability of the Observed Indicators
Table 2 contains the factor loadings and measurement error terms that were derived from
estimating the study model. These coefficients are important because they provide preliminary
information about the reliability of the multiple item study measures. Kline (2005) suggests that
items with standardized factor loadings in excess of .600 tend to have reasonably good reliability.
As the data in Table 2 indicate, the standardized factor loadings range from .656 to .937.
<Insert Table 2 about here>
Although the factor loadings and measurement error terms associated with the observed
indicators provide useful information about the reliability of each item, it would be helpful to
know something about the reliability for the scales as a whole. Fortunately, it is possible to
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compute these reliability estimates with a formula provided by DeShon (1998). This procedure is
based on the factor loadings and measurement error terms in Table 2. Applying the procedures
described by DeShon (1998) to these data yield the following reliability estimates for the multiple
item constructs in Figure 1: having a close relationship with God (.948), providing emotional
support to others (.857), meaning at Wave 5 (.847), and meaning at Wave 6 (.844). Taken as a
whole, the data presented in this section suggest that the reliability of the multiple item study
measures is good.
Substantive Findings
Table 3 contains the findings that emerged from estimating the relationships among the
latent constructs in Figure 1. Taken as a whole, these data provide support for the theoretical core
of this conceptual scheme. More specifically, the results reveal that older adults who go to
worship services more often tend to report they have a closer relationship with God (Beta = .502;
p < .001). The findings further indicate that older people who feel they have a close relationship
with God are more likely to provide emotional support to family members and close friends (Beta
= .169; p < .001). Consistent with the theoretical rationale that was presented earlier, the data also
suggest that older individuals who provide emotional support to others more frequently have a
stronger sense of meaning in life at Wave 5 (Beta = .231; p < .001) and Wave 6 (Beta = .109; p <
.01). As hypothesized, the findings further indicate that a stronger sense of meaning in life at
Wave 5 is associated with less functional disability at Wave 5 (Beta = -.300; p < .001). But more
importantly, the results also reveal that change in meaning over time is associated with change in
physical functioning over time. More specifically, the data suggest that older adults who
developed a stronger sense of meaning over time report they encountered relatively fewer
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problems with their physical functioning over time (Beta = -.245; p < .001). .
<Insert Table 3 about here>
One of the advantages of working with latent variable models arises from the fact that it is
possible to assess the indirect and total effects of a construct that operate through a model. A
simple example helps clarify the meaning of these terms. The model in Figure 1 specifies that
older people who have a close relationship with God are more likely to provide support to others,
and individuals who provide support to others are, in turn, more likely to have a deeper sense of
meaning in life. This means that a close relationship with God affects meaning indirectly through
providing support to others. When the direct effect of having a close relationship with God is
added to the indirect effect that operates through providing support to others, the resulting total
effect provides a broader vantage point for assessing role that a close relationship with God plays
in fostering a deeper sense of meaning in life. Examining the indirect effects and total effects that
operate through the study model also makes it possible to address and clarify other relationships
that have not been discussed up to this point. Breaking down the total effects of a relationship into
direct and indirect effects is known in the literature as the decomposition of effects (Alwin 1988).
Three decompositions will be examined here. These decompositions were selected for
review because they provide deeper insight into the ways in which a sense of meaning in life may
arise. The first has to do with the relationship between the frequency of church attendance and
meaning. The data in Table 3 suggest that more frequent church attendance is significantly
associated with change in meaning over time (Beta = .128; p < .001). But focusing solely on these
direct effects does not fully convey the magnitude of the influence of church attendance. Further
analysis (not shown in Table 3) suggests that the indirect effect of church attendance on change in
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meaning is statistically significant ( Beta = .156; p < .001). When this indirect effect is added to
the direct effect, the resulting total effect is considerably larger (.128 + .156 = .248; p < .001). In
fact, the total effect of church attendance on change in meaning over time is twice as large as the
direct effect that is reported in Table 3. Viewed in a more substantive way, the findings suggest
that the frequency of attendance plays an important role in shaping a sense of meaning in life and
a significant portion of this relationship can be explained by the intervening variables in the study
model (e.g., having a close relationship with God and providing emotional support to others).
The second decomposition of effects has to do with having a close relationship with God
and change in meaning in life. The direct effects that are reported in Table 3 create the impression
that this relationship is not statistically significant (Beta = -.030; n.s.). But when this direct effect
is added to the indirect effects that operate through the model (Beta = .158; p < .001; not shown in
Table 3), the resulting total effect (Beta = .128; p < .001; not shown in Table 3) indicates that
having a closer relationship with God is associated with a deeper sense of meaning over time.
The third decomposition involves the relationship between providing emotional support to
others and change in meaning over time. The direct effect that is provided in Table 3 (Beta =
.109; p < .01) indicates that helping others more often tends to strengthen an older person’s sense
of meaning over time. But this coefficient does not tell the whole story because some of the
influence of helping others on change in meaning arises indirectly by the more immediate impact
of providing support at Wave 5 on meaning at Wave 5. The resulting total effect (Beta = .208; p <
.001; not shown in Table 3) provides a more comprehensive overview of the extent to which
helping others makes life more meaningful for older people. Viewed in a more intuitively
pleasing way, these data indicate that providing emotional support to others tends to influence an
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older person’s sense of meaning in life in two ways. First, as discussed earlier, the direct effect of
providing support on meaning at Wave 5 is statistically significant (Beta = .231; p < .001). This
suggests that helping social network members tends to bolster an older person’s sense of meaning
fairly quickly. However, the fact that the relationship between providing support and change in
meaning is also statistically significant indicates that after meaning has been bolstered at Wave 5,
helping significant others continues to shore up the support provider’s sense of meaning over
time.
Discussion
Gerontologists have argued for some time that as people enter late life, they encounter a
social and psychological vacuum. Consequently, they must find ways to profitably invest their
energy and efforts so they can continue to enjoy the benefits and security that is associated with
occupying a meaningful place in the social order. Rosow (1976) sums up this challenge succinctly
by noting that aging is a “roleless role.” Baltes and Smith (1999) provide more insight into the
nature of this problem. They maintain that, “... relatively speaking, old age is young; therefore
neither biological nor cultural evolution has had sufficient opportunity to evolve a full and
optimizing scaffolding (architecture) for the later phases of life” (Baltes & Smith, 1999, p. 158).
The current study was designed to explore two issues that arise from the observations of these
noted gerontologists. The first issue involved exploring one way in which older people
successfully maintain a sense of meaning during this uncertain time in life. The second, and
perhaps more important issue was to show how the ability to maintain a sense of meaning during
late life influences the health of older people.
Both study aims were addressed by developing a conceptual model that has its basis in
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an institution that is especially important to many older adults - the church. The findings indicate
that older adults who go to church more often tend to report they have a closer relationship with
God. The data further reveal that older individuals who have a closer relationship with God are
more likely to provide emotional support to their social network members. Providing support to
others is important because the results suggest that doing so tends to bolster an older person’s
sense of meaning in life. And greater meaning is, in turn, associated with less functional disability
over time.
The results involving the provision of emotional support to others are helpful because
they can be used to extend current thinking on the way in which social relationships change over
the life course. The basic tenets of socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1992) stipulate
that as people grow older, they become increasingly aware that they have relatively little time left
to live. This awareness promotes a reevaluation of their social relationships. As Carstensen (1992)
points out, older people begin to place a greater emphasis on relationships that are emotionally
close, while disengaging from more peripheral social ties. The findings from the current study
extend this reasoning by showing that the increasing importance of emotionally close
relationships enhances the lives of older people in two key ways: helping others emotionally
provides a deeper sense of meaning in life which may, in turn, lead to better health.
The findings from this study contribute to the literature in three potentially important
ways. First, even though researchers have argued that religion helps people develop a deeper
sense of meaning in life (Hood et al., 2009) it is not entirely evident how this beneficial aspect of
religious involvement may arise. The current study addresses this gap in the literature by showing
that church attendance, having a close relationship with God, and helping others play a potentially
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important role in this process. A rationale was provided earlier for why helping others may
increase a sense of meaning, but it is not clear why church attendance and having a close
relationship with God may perform the same function. As Berger (1967) points out, in order for
religious belief systems to endure, they must be continually reaffirmed. Attending worship
services is one of the primary ways in which this may happen. By engaging in activities such as
group prays and singing hymns, those who attend church services collectively reaffirm the
religious beliefs that provide a sense of meaning in life. This is consistent with the observations of
Stark and Finke (2000), who argue that, “An individual’s confidence in religious explanations
(i.e., meaning) is strengthened to the extent that others express their confidence in them” (p. 107).
Terror management theory helps explain why feeling close to God may also increase a sense of
meaning. According to this perspective, “Death reminders …. increase faith in supernatural
agents” (Vail et al., 2010, p. 86). People have greater faith in supernatural agents because these
agents provide reassurance that there is life after death for those who adhere to specific religious
practices and beliefs. Viewed within the context of the current study, having a close relationship
with God who has created an afterlife and who provides religious precepts and practices that
insure entrance to it form a tightly integrated sense of meaning in life.
A second contribution of the current study arises from the effort that was made to link a
deeper sense of meaning in life with a health outcome that does not appear to have been evaluated
previously in this literature - functional disability. As Kane and Kane (2000) point out measures
of functional disability are important because “... physicians and nurses use functional assessment
to develop the initial plan of care and treatment goals... “(p. 19). They go on to point out that,
“For the social worker or case manager, the results of functional assessment direct how resources
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and services are allocated” (Kane & Kane, 2000, p. 20). Viewed in this way, measures of
functional disability are important because they provide a way to more closely link basic research
on religion with the way in which health care is actually provided to our aging population.
Third, the data for the current study were gathered at more than one point in time. As a
result, it was possible to evaluate the influence of change in meaning on change in functional
disability. It is important to address this issue because it satisfies one (but not all) of the classic
criteria for determining causality (Bradley & Schaefer, 1998).
Even though the findings from the current study may have contributed to the literature,
there are limitations in the work that has been done. One shortcoming is noteworthy. Although the
data for this study are longitudinal, the findings do not conclusively demonstrate that meaning
“causes” problems with functional disability to subside. Instead, it is possible to simply reverse
the causal ordering and argue that older people who have encountered more problems with
physical functioning subsequently experience more difficulty deriving a sense of meaning in life.
Clearly these as well as other causal issues that are embedded in the study model can only be
conclusively evaluated with studies that employ an experimental design.
Although it is the subject of some debate, Koltko-Rivera (2006) presents evidence that
shortly before his death, Abraham Maslow, the highly acclaimed former president of the
American Psychological Association, posited a new motivational state that sits atop his hierarchy
of needs - self-transcendence. Based on a thorough reading of Maslow’s private diaries, Koltko-
Rivera (2006) concluded that individuals with a strong motivation toward self-transcendence “...
seek communion with the transcendent, perhaps through mystical or transpersonal experiences;
they come to identify with something greater than the purely individual self, often engaging in
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service to others” (p. 306). The phrase “communion with the transcendent”, as well as the phrase
“engaging in service to others”, come quite close to the constructs in the current study that deal
with having a close relationship with God and providing emotional support to others. Perhaps the
greatest contribution of this study arises from the effort to delineate one pragmatic outcome of
attaining Maslow’s highest level of human development - improvement of the health of our aging
population.
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Table 1. Core Study Measures
______________________________________________________________________________
1. Functional Disability - Wave 5 and Wave 6
a
A. Difficulty shopping for personal items, such as toilet items and medicines
B. Using the telephone
C. Bathing yourself
D. Climbing 2-3 flights of stairs
E. Walking about 1/4 mile
F. Doing heavy work around the house, such as shoveling snow or washing walls
G. Taking a bus or train by yourself
H. Standing or being on your feet for about 2 hours
I. Stooping, crouching, or kneeling
J. Reaching over your head
K. Using your fingers to grasp or handle
L. Lifting or carrying something as heavy as 25 pounds
M. Dressing or undressing yourself
N. Feeding yourself
O. Getting in or out of bed
2. Church Attendance - Wave 5
b
How often do you attend religious services?
3. Close Relationship with God - Wave 5
c
A. I have a close personal relationship with God.
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B. I feel that God is right here with me in everyday life.
C. When I talk to God, I know He listens to me.
4. Emotional Support Provided to Others - Wave 5
d
A. How often have you comforted someone by showing them physical affection?
B. How often have you listened to someone talk about their private feelings and
concerns?
C. How often have you expressed interest and concern in someone’s well-being?
D. How often have you been right there with someone (physically) in a stressful
situation?
5. Meaning in Life - Wave 5 and Wave 6
c
A. Values
1. I have a system of values and beliefs that guide my daily activities.
2. I have a philosophy of life that helps me understand who I am.
B. Purpose
1. I feel like I am living fully.
2. I feel like I have found a really significant meaning in my life.
C. Goals
1. In my life, I have goals and aims.
2. I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.
D. Reflections on the Past
1. I feel good when I think about what I have accomplished in life.
2. I am at peace with my past.
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______________________________________________________________________________
a
These items are scored in the following manner (coding in parenthesis): no difficulty (0); has
difficulty (1).
b
This item is scored in the following manner: never (1), less than once a year (2), about once or
twice a year (3), several times a year (4), about once a month (5), 2 to 3 times a month (6), nearly
every week (7), every week (8), several times a week (9).
c
These items are scored in the following manner: strongly disagree (1), disagree (2), agree (3),
strongly agree (4).
d
These items are scored in the following manner: never (1), once in a while (2), fairly often (3),
very often (4).
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Table 2. Measurement error parameter estimates for multiple item study measures (N = 1,011)
______________________________________________________________________________
Construct Factor Loading
a
Measurement Error
b
______________________________________________________________________________
1. Close Relationship With God
A. Close relationship with God
c
.909 .173
B. God is right here with me .937 .122
C. God listens .936 .124
2. Emotional Support Provided to Others
A. Comforted someone .808 .350
B. Listened to someone talk .827
.315
C. Expressed interest and concern .796 .366
D. Been right there with someone .659 .565
3. Meaning in Life - Wave 5
A. Values .681 .537
B. Purpose .838 .297
C. Goals .829 .312
D. Reflections on the past .693 .520
4. Meaning in Life - Wave 6
A. Values .645 .584
d
B. Purpose .864 .253
C. Goals .852 .274
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D. Reflections on the past .656 .570
______________________________________________________________________________
a
Factor loadings are from the completely standardized solution. The first-listed item for each
latent construct was fixed at 1.0 in the unstandardized solution.
b
Measurement error terms are from the completely standardized solution. All factor loadings and
measurement error terms are significant at the .001 level.
c
Item content is paraphrased for the purpose of identification. See Table 1 for the complete text
of each indicator.
d
The measurement error terms were constrained to be equivalent in the unstandardized solution
for identical Wave 5 and Wave 6 meaning in life measures.
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Table 3. Change in Meaning in Life and Change in Physical Functioning (N = 1,011)
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Dependent Variables
Church Close to Give Emotional Meaning Physical Meaning Physical
Independent Variables Attendance God Support in Life Functioning In Life Functioning
(Wave 5) (Wave 5) (Wave 6) (Wave 6)
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Age -.099
a ***
.001 -.166*** -.081* .157*** -.093** .159***
(-.038)
b
(.001) (-.017) (-.007) (.068) (-.008) (.077)
Sex -.108*** -.118*** -.022 .110*** -.184*** .024 -.071*
(-.663) (-.169) (-.036) (.153) (-1.270) (.032) (-.549)
Education .068* -.088** .084* .100** -.125*** .011 -.135***
(.060) (-.018) (.020) (.020) (-.124) (.002) (-.150)
Church attendance .502*** .115** .157*** -.106** .128*** -.006
(.117) (.030) (.036) (-.120) (.028) (-.007)
Close to God .169*** .287*** .098* -.030 .022
(.191) (.279) (.475) (-.028) (.122)
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Give Emotional Support .231*** .011 .109** .048
(.198) (.048) (.091) (.229)
Meaning in Life (Wave 5) -.300*** .428*** .059
(-1.495) (.414) (.328)
Physical Functioning (Wave 5) .422***
(.473)
Meaning in Life (Wave 6) -.245***
(-1.414)
Multiple R
2
.023 .281 .102 .283 .225 .306 .387
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
a
Standardized regression coefficient
b
Metric (unstandardized) regression coefficient
* = p < .05; ** = p < .01; *** = p < .001.
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3
4
4
5
Meaning
In Life
Wave 5
2
2
Church
Attendance
1
1
Close to
God
3
Give
Emotional
Support
Physical
Functioning
Wave 6
6
Meaning
In Life
Wave 6
Physical
Functioning
Wave 5
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Page 38
  • Source
    • "Interestingly enough, there is no empirical evidence of mediation for body mass, alcohol consumption, marital status, contact with friends and children, social well-being, the provision of emotional support, optimism, fatalism , emotional well-being, depression, and psychological well-being (Idler 1987; Kasl 1992, 1997b; Son and Wilson 2011). There are, however, some data to support the partial mediating influence of physical activity, smoking, contact with family, leisure social activities, meaning in life, and immune function (Benjamins 2004; Hybels et al. 2014; Idler and Kasl 1997b; Krause and Hayward 2012). Taken together, these results suggest that religious involvement may actually contribute to better physical functioning through a range of mechanisms. "
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2016 · Journal of Health and Social Behavior
  • Source
    • "Interestingly enough, there is no empirical evidence of mediation for body mass, alcohol consumption, marital status, contact with friends and children, social well-being, the provision of emotional support, optimism, fatalism , emotional well-being, depression, and psychological well-being (Idler 1987; Kasl 1992, 1997b; Son and Wilson 2011). There are, however, some data to support the partial mediating influence of physical activity, smoking, contact with family, leisure social activities, meaning in life, and immune function (Benjamins 2004; Hybels et al. 2014; Idler and Kasl 1997b; Krause and Hayward 2012). Taken together, these results suggest that religious involvement may actually contribute to better physical functioning through a range of mechanisms. "
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2016 · Journal of Health and Social Behavior
  • Source
    • "There is a positive relation between meaning and subjective ratings of health in a range of populations, from cancer survivors (Jim & Anderson, 2007) and Alzheimer Disease patients (Boyle, Buchman, Wilson, Yu, Schneider, & Bennett, 2012) to adolescents and smoking cessation patients (Steger, Mann, Michels, & Cooper, 2009). Those high in meaning in life show better physiological indicators of immune (Krause & Hayward, 2012) and stress response (Ishida & Okada, 2006). Meaning also is beneficially related to the health behaviors thought to be important for overall health, such as dietary control (Piko & Brassai, 2009), substance use (Brassai, Piko, & Steger, 2012; Martin, MacKinnon, Johnson, & Rohsenow, 2011), physical activity (Brassai, Piko, & Steger, in press; Holahan, Holahan, Velasquez, Jung, North, & Pahl, 2011), and healthy attitudes toward sexual prophylactics (Steger, Fitch-Martin, "
    Full-text · Article · Dec 2014
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