Resourcing the spiritual journey of older people

Residential care

Spiritual nurture in residential care

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When someone moves into residential care, their physical, medical, emotional and spiritual needs all should be taken into account. A 'person-centred' approach to health and well-being attaches importance to each of these aspects of someone's personality and needs - body, mind and spirit. However, the extent to which this happens in practice varies widely. 

At its best, residential care offers the opportunity:

  • to be part of a safe and peaceful community in which the older person can be enabled to thrive.
  • to continue to grow spiritually
  • to be cared for through physical decline.

For example, no one, who doesn't want to, should be left without any visitor, even if family has dwindled or relatives live a long distance away so that visits are, of necessity, infrequent.

None of us has as their ambition to live in a care home in later life, but it becomes a necessity for some. If you are a relative or friend of someone in residential care, or indeed a care home manager or church leader, you will have an interest in seeing people flourish rather than just having their physical health 'managed' with the passing of the years. And if church has been an important part of someone's life before admission, it needs to remain so afterwards, which may raise some challenges, not least among those living with memory loss. But it could be argued that this need should go beyond keeping in touch just with those who might have been churchgoers in the past. Those who profess no faith still need opportunities to have their deeper questions about life taken seriously. Attentive listening can be extremely therapeutic. We can be helped to find our own peace of mind by being genuinely heard and honoured in this way.

The role of churches

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Most churches are likely to have one, if not, several care homes in their parish or surrounding area. Churches are best placed, arguably, for helping residents with this key transition in their life, when they may well be addressing some of the toughest questions about their life - past, present and future. Churches who take this duty of care seriously may also need to assess how effectively they are supporting the relatives of those living with dementia.

Some, but by no means all, homes do have access to worship and maintain effective links with different churches and other places of worship in their community. The ideal is for all residents, who wish it, to be in touch with someone from their faith tradition who can visit sometimes, or arrange regular visits, and provide materials for spiritual nurture.

By championing opportunities for residents to worship if they wish to, and be stimulated and more creative, we are honouring the fact that each of us is a social being. Without the chance to have stimulating conversation, especially more meaningful dialogue that goes beyond the superficial, we simply wither.

Anna Chaplaincy has been found to contribute to a real difference in the atmosphere of a care home. For example, the very presence of a chaplain can change the way in which the subject of death is handled. How news of a resident's death is broken is vitally important. Some homes still choose not to mention it, for fear of affecting morale. On the contrary, we feel it's important to tell the deceased's close friends in the home first, and then the wider community in a respectful way that honours the person who has died. Information about the funeral should be provided, and whether offers of a lift to attend are possible, all make the passing of a fellow resident and friend more bearable. The implication, too, is that when our own death comes we shall be remembered in a similarly appropriate, sensitive, way.

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Spiritual care is being increasingly recognised in care homes and there are a variety ways in which we can all support this shift in thinking. The Gift of Years applauds what's already going on in so many places and wants to enable everyone to tap into those existing projects and approaches that work well, rather than having to 're-invent the wheel'. This is all part of the intention to 'join up the dots' to inspire others to copy examples of good practice that they might not, otherwise, have known about.

Our interior lives become even more significant to us as we get older. The inner life needs nurturing, and The Gift of Years is about highlighting good ideas and tried-and-tested ways in which this can happen (see Resources).