James L. Risk tells the story of 42-year old Mary, hospitalised with a cancerous condition requiring the amputation of her leg. She railed at God, particularly in view of her ongoing need to care for three children:

Mary cried out in lamentation about her losses—of her leg, her future and being able to find strength in her faith. The chaplain listened. He let her name her fears and doubts, and then he explored the positive images of faith she had learned as a child. He gently drew on those memories and images of a loving Presence and helped her reframe her future story. Over several weeks and many visits, he prayed with her and helped her to reclaim a sense of self-sufficiency as she faced an uncertain future.[1]

Mary was a person in early middle-age. But stories like hers –of loss, bewilderment, regret and despair –abound in aged care settings.

When unheard and unmet, these stories accumulate into thick miasmas of psychic pain. Work there becomes a perpetual marathon through endless woe, whether quietly unspoken or sporadically wailed. Terrible institutional dysfunctions unveiled by the royal commission may finally emanate from these reservoirs of unhealed suffering that then demoralise and erode staff and management alike.

Yet Mary’s story offers hope for carers everywhere, just as for residents in their care.

Her spiritual carer had the skill and wisdom to allow her to unpack and explore her pain, and in a register unique to spiritual care. Mary may have had other excellent supports: psychologists, social workers, other kindly attendants. Yet her spiritual carer could venture into terrain when these others would not or could not go.

Spiritual care is an aspect of total care. Whatever our personal animosities, scepticism and negative experiences of things ‘spiritual’, it is a form of need that so regularly comes upon people as to entail that all care teams need agile spiritual carers.

Of course, these spiritual carers will also be boundaried and respectful in their collaboration with care teams. To help Mary well, these best spiritual carers will flex to the urgent demands upon her other carers. They will read organisational, business and compliance demands upon management and governance. They will astutely ‘decode’ each situation with a deep literacy about the processes, systems and cultures they are privileged to join.

And from time to time the best of them may also touch Mary’s other carers with a little spiritual care, when they expect it least yet need it most.

Charles Sturt University’s program in Ageing and Pastoral Studies equips spiritual carers to become astute, effective, and situationally literate, from the bedside to the boardroom.

Because total care needs spiritual care.

Reverend Dr Andrew Cameron is the Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre. His academic interests are in ethics and theology, and he teaches in the Ageing and Pastoral Studies program with the Charles Sturt University School of Theology. The program equips carers from the bedside to the boardroom, mentoring and challenging people with proven skills in spiritual care to become more effective in institutional settings. For more information, call 6272 6252.

[1] James L. Risk, “Spiritual Struggle: Identifying persons at spiritual risk has positive impact on health outcomes,” Healing Spirit (Fall 2008), 6.