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Paying attention is at the core of spiritual care


Surely seniors living in residential aged care are among the loneliest because they’re not connected to what matters most for them, argues Ilsa Hampton. 

Recently a spiritual care volunteer wrote that he’d gone beyond the superficial and lighthearted conversations he usually had with a man who had been a “larrikin” in his day onto discussing the “intense loneliness” the man felt.

Ilsa Hampton

This man talked to the volunteer about painful, sleepless nights, fears his body is failing fast and how scary it is that “the inevitable” could be fast approaching. He said the man:

“also shared his experiences as a carer for his wife over many years, her diabetes and dialysis, and the impact of her death on him.”

The volunteer knew the man believed in God and so they talked about prayer to help build courage when things are tough. The man thanked the volunteer for the visit and asked if they could talk again.

This experience gets to the core of spiritual wellbeing and its links to loneliness in aged care – the subject of recent reporting in Australian Ageing Agenda.

Despite being surrounded by others, people living in residential aged care are among the loneliest. Surely this is because they are not connected to what matters most for them.

Lack of connection

In fact, there can be an inverse relationship between the increasing limitations of an older person’s body and an increasing strength of spirit. There is a growing body of evidence that talks about the importance of:

  • Spiritual reminiscence: who have I been? Who am I now? What endures for me? Whose am I? What are the stories that define me? What are my bedrock convictions? Providing an opportunity to find a sense of coherence in your overall story
  • Elderhood/purpose: what is my contribution? What difference does it make?
  • Meaning: beliefs, values, expectations and roles – what has it all been for?
  • Connectedness: with self, others, creativity, nature and Something Bigger/God

If they don’t have an answer to these questions, or the chance to reflect on them with someone, older people can experience loneliness of the spirit – a lack of connectivity at a deeper level.

We all need to address this need in the care we provide. The opportunity for spiritual care from all staff in aged care, including trained spiritual care volunteers, is to not only alleviate this loneliness but to help people engage with what matters most at this stage of their lives. People with the time and skill to listen with compassion are an important part of the picture.

One of our NSW members, a non faith-based organisation, is using intergenerational reminiscence programs to help residents discuss and pass on their experiences, skills and stories.

Family and friends may have died, as have fellow residents, but these residents can connect and feel valued through the younger generation. They have a role as elder. Their life is celebrated at a special event. These kinds of moments make an important contribution to helping people make sense of their own story.

Opportunity to serve

Those working in aged care are attending to their own fundamental need for meaningful work. As stressful as it may feel at times, our quality of life is greatly enhanced by having the opportunity to serve older people. What are we doing then if we create systems that don’t give the same opportunity to older people?

The new draft aged care quality standards have numerous elements that link directly to understanding and responding to each person’s spirituality – such as quality of life, wellbeing and identity.

Moving into residential aged care is an incredibly disruptive time for people’s identities. It’s not a lifestyle choice in the way we might choose to work part time or live in a certain suburb. The point at which people engage with aged care is a time of significant transition in their lives. It marks the moment when they’re honest with themselves and those around them, albeit grudgingly at times, that they’re not able to do all they could before.

The National Guidelines for Spiritual Care in Aged Care are built on a solid foundation of sector consultation and the evidence base for spiritual care.

Many of our aged care members are already using them to ensure the spiritual needs of clients and residents are supported. The guidelines are a vital toolkit to help organisations orientate around understanding and responding to each person, to prevent the profound loneliness that is all too common for those accessing aged care.

Ilsa Hampton is CEO of Meaningful Ageing Australia. 

Related AAA coverage: Breaking the loneliness cycle in aged care



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3 Responses to Paying attention is at the core of spiritual care

  1. Barbara Connor February 26, 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    It’s so difficult for pca’s and nurses to be careful not to cross a line when engaging with a resident, probably even more so if the client has dementia, and so talking is superficial, caring but on one level. And then of course there is always the time and staffing issue. Recently a resident passed away and I wondered what effect that had on the other residents, one of the other residents talked about her a fair bit. I don’t even know if the death was acknowledged. So when a resident dies is it like they just weren’t there, and how does this make other residents feel, that when they die it was like they were never there? This is just an example of how some sort of spiritual counselling could work. My mum loves music, other residents talk about their interests before they came to live there. But the conversation is brief and impersonal. And then, who is going to fund this?

  2. Mark Ereira March 5, 2018 at 11:27 am #

    I fully agree with the sentiments and concerns raised at least this has been an oportunity to communicate and a rare chance outside of what I consider as Gods waiting room my final home it does get lonely in this regard I try to help myself by focusing my action in entertaining fellow residents and doing what i am now doing on my computer and smartphone i had to push for and at my own expence to entertain with music and soon comedy 4 to 5 shows per month including the dementia unit. More volunteers would be great.

  3. Richard Arthur April 11, 2018 at 1:16 pm #

    As a Lifestyle Coordinator, I have shifted my focus from merely running activities to attempting to ensure that people feel connected and welcome here. I am often without the resources to fully achieve these ends, but having recently read Johann Hari’s book ‘Lost Connections’ on depression, I’m further convinced that a significant amount of depression/loneliness/suicidal ideation stems from not being connected. Hari found that a significant cause of depression was that people are further and further alienated from loved ones, or an environment where they feel they play a significant or valuable role.

    Some residents don’t wish to be connected, but simple acknowledgement can be enough.

    Most of the approaches like entertainment having a place, but they’re often just escapism – they don’t get at the root of things.

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