Dissertation Abstracts

"Prayer, a Heritage from Generation to Generation": The Elderly and Religion in Finland at the Turn of the 21st Century

Author: Spännäri, Jenni A, jenni.spannari@gmal.com
Department: Practical Theology
University: Univ. of Helsinki, Finland
Supervisor: prof. Eila Helander
Year of completion: 2009
Language of dissertation: Finnish

Keywords: aging , religion , collective memory
Areas of Research: Religion , Biography and Society


The strong demographic changes in Europe mean that research on the elderly, their resources and opportunities is highly needed. Further, it is important to determine how the elderly could find a meaningful place as members of the chain of generations in our rapidly changing society.

The aim of this study was to find out how the elderly build and perceive their place in society through religious texts. The study was based on religious texts written by elderly people in the study groups of the Finnish pensioners’ organization Pension Union (Eläkeliitto). These 943 short prayers, poems, and aphorisms were collected during the Tree of Life (Elämänpuu) project from1998-1999 and were then analysed applying qualitative content analysis and grounded theory methodology. The social construction of aging and the view of communication as a collective signifying process were used as the mainstays of the research perspective.

The themes brought forward by the elderly writers were grouped around three key themes: the self, the world, and religion. In this examination, religion with its forms of expression appeared to be deeply rooted to each of these themes and thus seems a vital part of the elderly writers' culture. In connection with the theme of the self, the religious forms of expression provided a means of building a coherent and culturally accepted self-image which is further supported by positive views of personal history and current life situation. In relation to the world theme, the elderly writers stressed the importance of close social relationships and at the same time expressed anxiety with regard to the changing world. Concerning the theme of religion, the religious forms of expression were first and foremost used in building and creating a sense of personal safety and a belief in the future.

The study suggests that skill in the use of religious language enable the elderly to cope with equivocal life events and cognitive dissonance. At the social level, the religious forms of expression seemed to connect the writers to the Finnish linguistic culture and identity, as well as to the collective memory, where religion plays a central part. By using religious language, the elderly both exploit and maintain these considerable social resources.

The key result of the study is that the elderly were found to have a significant and separate role in the continuity and well-being of society. Bound to the religious tradition, the elderly seem to carry significant information as regards the identity of the Finnish people, information which is essentially passed on to future generations. By sustaining traditions and thus the collective identity, they perform a uniquely productive task and their life experience could be seen as a particular type of capital in the society. This result also raises a grave question: Will the elderly of the future be able to undertake this task that so profoundly requires religious literacy?