Seniors Use Prayer To Cope With Stress; Prayer No. 1 Alternative Remedy

December 28, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you’re an older American and suffered from holiday stress this season, odds are good you used prayer to ward it off, new research shows.

A study from the University of Florida and Wayne State University shows most older adults use prayer more than any other alternative health remedy to help manage the stress in their lives. In addition, nurse researchers found that prayer is the most frequently reported alternative treatment used by seniors to feel better or maintain health in general.

UF College of Nursing associate professor Ann L. Horgas and Karen S. Dunn, a Wayne State University doctoral student, report 96 percent of older adults use prayer to specifically cope with stress.

The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Holistic Nursing, also shows that 84 percent of the respondents reported using prayer more than other alternative remedies to feel better or to maintain their health. In fact, from a list of 32 alternative therapies, prayer is used more often than exercise, heat, relaxation techniques, humor or herbal remedies to maintain overall health.

“There’s been recent research showing that most Americans pray and that prayer has a positive effect on mental and physical health,” said Horgas, a registered nurse who joined the UF nursing faculty and UF Institute on Aging this past summer. “However, most of the studies about prayer and health have been conducted on very ill, hospitalized or surgical patients.”

Horgas and Dunn interviewed 50 people, whose average age was 74, at six community senior centers and one church in Detroit. Seventy percent of the respondents were women, 48 percent were white and 52 percent were black. About half the respondents were Catholic (48 percent) followed by Protestants (46 percent) and the remainder were classified as other.

“There were few differences among these groups in the use of prayer as a coping strategy,” Dunn said. “However, women and black/African Americans did report using prayer to cope with stress significantly more often than men and white/Caucasians.”

Dunn, who also is a registered nurse, said prayer was classified as a complementary or alternative therapy in health-care research about three years ago and it most often means a form of communion with a deity or the Creator.

While prayer was the predominant alternative therapy used, more than one-third of the respondents reported using other spiritual strategies to feel good or maintain their health as well. Prayer, imagery, music, art therapy, distraction, energy healing, humor, meditation, relaxation and religious counseling were defined as spiritual treatments.

Seniors who prayed or used other spiritual treatments were also found to use more positive and self-reliant coping strategies, Horgas said.

“All of us have events in our lives that can cause stress,” Horgas said, “so it’s important that people have more than one way to manage that stress when it occurs; prayer seems to be one important way for many older adults.”

Horgas, who has her doctorate in human development and family studies with a special emphasis on aging, said older adults are at high risk for stress, particularly because of deteriorating health, chronic illness, pain, multiple losses from the death of friends and family, and the need to accept that death may be imminent.

“This study shows that prayer may help minimize the negative effects of stress and help seniors maintain an optimum level of health,” Horgas said. “The next step in our research will be to examine the actual effects of prayer on mental and physical outcomes.”

Dunn said many nurses do research to find ways to help patients maintain good health as well as cope with illness.

“This research also shows that nurses need to understand the importance of prayer in the lives of older adults and that they should consider assessing prayer as a coping and treatment strategy,” Dunn said.

The results of Horgas’ and Dunn’s study were confirmed using two different measurements. One measure used questions about specific mental and behavioral coping strategies in dealing with stress, and a second set of questions indicated how often respondents used any of 32 alternative health or spiritual treatments to keep healthy or feel better in general.