Catholic nuns have a conspicuous presence in the American imagination. They’re depicted as kindhearted innocents like Sally Fields’ plucky heroine in The Flying Nun, and, on the other end of the spectrum, as the ruler-wielding, knuckle-smacking villains of many Catholic schoolchildren’s early years.
The nuns regularly communicate a deep sense of love through their prayers and conversations.
While these stereotypes may tell us more about how celibacy, morality, and religion play out in the collective American imagination than they do about nuns themselves, there is something else that makes these women stand out from the rest of the American population: their remarkable track record of aging successfully. American Catholic nuns experience greater physical and emotional well-being at the end of life than other women and are 27 percent more likely to live into their seventies.
During the past five years, I have spent 11 months living in a Catholic convent as an anthropologist, researching how the nuns’ social and linguistic practices affect their experiences in old age. During this time, I recorded their prayers, interviewed them about their relationships, and followed them as they cared for each other in ways both big and small. My work is part of a growing body of research conducted during the past two decades that has begun to uncover why nuns enjoy such healthy aging.
Here are six things that I learned from them:
1. Keep moving.
Nuns are on their feet all the time. During the day, the ones I worked with are often teaching or nursing, and in the mornings and evenings they usually visit their peers in the infirmary or volunteer at a local food bank.
Researchers who study aging agree that keeping active is part of the solution. For example, David Snowdon was the director of “the Nun Study“—a research project conducted by the National Institute on Aging beginning in 1986—which focused on a group of 678 American Catholic nuns.
One of his key findings was that regular exercise is one of the best things a person can do to age well. In his 2001 book Aging with Grace, Snowdon writes that the key is to find a type of exercise you enjoy, even just walking, and do it regularly.
2. Practice positive emotions.
The nuns regularly communicate a deep sense of love to each other and to themselves through their prayers and conversations. They describe experiencing Jesus as a constant, loving companion. One nun told me that she experiences the feeling of being embraced in a huge hug whenever she passes a crucifix (which, in a convent, happens quite often).
Basic emotions can have a big impact on well-being, and it’s remarkable how much we can shape them through practice. Research has found that emotions like happiness, anger, fear, and sadness affect heart rate, blood pressure, immune response, and even digestion (for details, see this article by psychologist Wallace Friesen). Habitual anger, hostility, and depression have been found to be risk factors for heart disease.
Nuns enjoy the benefits of positive emotions because their daily prayers lead them to feel love, joy, and compassion. Buddhist monks who practice loving-kindness meditation show similar health benefits. Whether by spiritual or secular means, we know that a similar practice will positively affect health and well-being on both emotional and physical levels.
3. Have a purpose and work for it.
Sister Francis was a 95-year-old nun who lived in the infirmary and could no longer walk more than a couple steps. When I asked her how she passed her days, she said, “I visit the infirm.” Indeed, every afternoon, she wheeled into the rooms of nuns even more frail than herself to keep them company and pray with them.
Planning the end of our lives long before it happens can help us face our own mortality more peacefully.
As retirement approaches, we may often think that freedom from the responsibilities of work will bring happiness. But this is often not the case. After retirement, it’s the people who have a sense of purpose, commitment, and a way to be needed who tend to be the happiest and healthiest. At any stage of life, it’s important to continue to contribute to the world and ask yourself how you can be helpful to others.
4. Maintain community.
The nuns are in constant contact with their peers. They know who is ill or well or having a hard week, and they always have someone to turn to when they are in need. One of the key findings in my work is the importance of having a group of people with whom to interact, and who feel responsible for each other.
“I had no trouble adjusting when I retired,” said a sister who had worked for decades as a teacher in another state. “I’ve known these people for 67 years, you know, so it’s not like I’m coming into a nursing home of strangers. These are friends.”
The nuns are lucky enough to retire among people they’ve known for decades. The impact of this experience on well-being emphasizes the importance of cultivating a community of friends and neighbors.
5. It’s never too early to face death.
The nuns begin planning their own funerals as soon as they retire and in some cases even before that. A sister in her 80s told me that planning her own funeral made her less fearful. “Death is simply the step over the line, it’s a passing on,” she told me. “Right now in my life I feel comfortable with that. And I think planning the funeral solidified that. It’s made me less fearful.”
For many of us, it can feel morbid at best or terrifying at worst to face our own mortality. We often don’t think or talk about death until we’re in the midst of it. But many nuns find that it can be a helpful process. As they plan their funerals, they also think about how they’d like the end of their lives to unfold. A nun can specify whether she’d like to die surrounded by people in prayer, or whether she’d like the room to be quiet—perhaps with one sister holding her hand and speaking to her.
This practice, along with the nuns’ belief in an afterlife, helps the nuns become comfortable with death. Planning the end of our lives long before it happens can help us face our own mortality more peacefully, and prevent financial and emotional burdens on surviving family members.
6. Let go of attachments.
When the nuns enter the convent as novices, they give up a number of privileges most of us enjoy: They can no longer choose where and with whom they live, and, in the early days, even their clothes and their names are chosen for them.
While they told me that these transitions can and did cause pain or sadness at first, over their lifetimes they became skilled at giving things up. When the nuns approach old age and move to the infirmary or to the assisted-living wing of the convent, they do so with much less strife than lay people. In order to learn to let go of the things we must give up in old age, such as our homes and jobs, it can help to practice parting with the things we are attached to now.
Catholic nuns live unique lives, and their celibacy and isolation from the secular world may make them seem austere or strange to the rest of us. But the remarkable pattern of longevity, joy, and peace they experience in their final years offers insight into how we can all increase our health and happiness at the end of life.
The good news is that you don’t have to live in a convent to do the things that keep these nuns healthy and happy. By staying active, cultivating caring relationships, and finding ways to talk bravely about death and dying, we can all benefit from what nuns know about healthy aging.