Religion in the Public Sphere and its Relationship to the Public Good
What is the relationship between religion in the public sphere and the public good? The Toronto Baycrest Centre for the Aged and Holocaust Survivors is a recognized world leader in brain health. It is the purpose of this position paper to show that Baycrest's application of religiosity on the elderly has positive health benefits, both physically and mentally. Furthermore, religious involvement serves not only to benefit the individual client, but also the volunteer caregivers and the general public.
How does religious involvement affect the health of the elderly clients at Baycrest. As a volunteer, I am involved with three Jewish programs: 1) serving brunch to 150 holocaust survivors; 2) assisting infirm hospital clients at the Oneg Shabbat service, and 3) escorting two elderly Jewish women to the Kabbalat Shabbat service. The clients who attend these programs are Jews suffering from a range of physical and mental aging disabilities. The average age is 80 years or older. Functional disability is an important benchmark of health status in the elderly, and is especially associated with mortality and depression. Moreover, functional disability is an important indicator for projecting active life expectancy or years remaining for independent living. Overall, a study by Idler and Stanislav in 1992, indicated a powerful phenomenon at work. Public religious involvement of the elderly was linked to preservation of life and health, ability to perform basic daily activities, prevent feelings of emotional distress. and even control one's timing of death (Idler, Stanislav 1992:1078). It was found that public religious involvement, not private, showed the greatest cognitive effects. The ritual element of religion and its respective religious symbols, as Durkheim would argue, hold a special power through a concentration of meaning in these public religious rites. Weekly and yearly ceremonies intensify the member's sense of identity within the group. Anticipation and participation in these repeated public rituals, not only "serve to remake individuals and groups morally, they stimulate social and cognitive functioning, connecting the inward-looking act of remembering with the outward physical performance that build a sense of continuity. (Idler, Stanislav 1992:1076). In a paper by Sally Promey: "The Public Display of Religion", this point is reinforced. "Display is truly fundamental to the process of constructing a human reality...Visible religion takes on an active cultural role...public display marks off space for the formation and re-formation of identity...it also stipulates a social arena for configuration and reconfiguration of community" (Promey: 47-48). The public display of religion at Baycrest, as I have observed, stimulates and encourages what it means to be Jewish and as several studies have shown, there is a significant and positive relationship between mental health and the importance of one's faith (Meisenhelder, Chandler 2002:244).
In the March 2011 newsletter, "Baycrest Matters", there is a groundbreaking Bravo study about whether volunteer activities improve older adults' physical, cognitive and psychological function. Senior scientist, Dr. Nicole Anderson and Syrelle Bernstein, director, Volunteer Services at Baycrest noted that volunteering increased physical, cognitive and social activity which helps volunteers preserve their brain health and decrease their risk of dementia. Almost all of the volunteers at the Shabbat services are in their mid-eighties and show a heighened sense of physical and mental awarness and activity. Furthermore, a 2005 study by Michelle Pearce, found that religious beliefs and involvement and religious coping were related to increased caregiving satisfaction. With the trend towards informal outpatient care, longer survival times and reduced health care resources, identifying adaptive coping resources that enable caregivers with an effective means for handling stressful situations associated with elder care is important. The apparent helpfulness of religious coping strategies among caregivers and religion's affect on their health and well-being seems particularly relevant and suggests that religion is an important adaptive coping resource for caregivers.
Lastly, Baycrest's application of religion in the public sphere benefits society as a whole. In her article, "Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution", Winnifred Sullivan notes that, "Europeans look at their churches with benign benevolence-they are useful social institutions" (Sullivan 2009:3). Furthermore, Michelle Pearce found that "spiritually-sensitive care is integral to a holistic approach to healthcare delivery and well being and is desired by many patients" (Pearce 2005:82). The cost of all three Jewish Programs at Baycrest are offset by the large numbers of volunteer staff. Jason Hackworth's article: "Faith, Welfare, and the City: The Mobilization of Religious Organizations for Neoliberal Ends" would concur that Baycrest's volunteer program provides a way to reduce hospital expenditures and rising health care costs in a way that is in line with neoliberal theory and is mutually beneficial. My own experience as a volunteer has been extremely rewarding. I look forward to my experiences at Baycrest every Friday. It fosters a positive sense of my own well being as well as an attitude of genuine love and caring for others. Everyone involved, including the patients and their families, the volunteers, myself and even my family, friends, and busines clients (thanks to my improved demeanor) benefit from Baycrest's generosity of religous spirit.
2002. Chandler, Emily N., Meisenhelder, Janice Bell. Spirituality and Health Outcomes in the Elderly. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 41, No. 3., pp. 243-252
2010. Hackworth, Jason. Faith, Welfare, and the City: The Mobilization of Religious Organizations for Neoliberal Ends. Urban Geography. Department of Geography, University of Toronto. pp. 750-773.
1987. Idler, Ellen. Religious Involvement and the Health of the Elderly: Some Hypotheses and an Initial Test. Social Forces, Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 226-238
1992. Idler Ellen L., Kasl, Stanislav V. Religion, Disability, Depression, and the Timing of Death. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 97, No. 4, New Directions in the Sociology of Medicine. pp. 1052-1079
2005. Pearce, Michelle J. A Critical Review of the Forms and Value of Religious Coping among Informal Caregivers. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 81-118
Promey, Sally M. The Public Display of Religion in The visual Culture of American Religions pp. 27-48
2009. Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion. Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton University. Oxford.
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