This past June, scholars, practitioners, support workers, health-care experts and interested parties from across the globe gathered together virtually over the course of three weeks to advance the connections between spiritual practice and the effects of aging, at the ninth International Conference on Aging and Spirituality.
Many health-care support workers and religious/spiritual practitioners recognize the benefits of a broader approach to spiritual needs among all aging individuals and communities beyond end-of-life care, and recognize the diverse experiences of elder care around the world. The online conference connected researchers with practitioners in a way that fosters community and advances this important intersection of care.
Originally started in Australia in 2000, the conference had previously been hosted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States. For 2021, the conference was to be held at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., until the pandemic brought international travel and in-person events to a standstill.
Jane Kuepfer, the Schlegel specialist in spirituality and aging at Grebel and the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, worked with an established committee as the conference co-ordinator, to offer the conference online.
“Many people were excited for the opportunity to participate in this conference virtually,” she said, “especially in the midst of pandemic, when they are longing for meaningful engagement.”
The decision created a version of the conference that connected more people from around the world simultaneously than in-person conferences had previously allowed for.
“We certainly had more international participation than I would have expected in person, and good participation from older adults who could conveniently use Zoom from home,” she said. “Also, chaplains could participate without having to take time away from work.”
The modified three-week conference, normally held over three days, hosted seven 90-minute live presentations over Zoom, reaching participants across eight countries. The committee accepted twice as many abstracts as it had presentation room for, so 13 presenters pre-recorded their presentations for on-demand viewing by participants. The presenters represented six countries, including contributions from Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.
With this year’s theme of “Vital connections: Claiming voice and learning to listen,” speakers covered topics of COVID-19 and pandemic care in elder spaces, moral injury, medicine and spiritual well-being, workplace engagement, dementia, oral traditions in Afro-Indigenous communities, mental health, art interventions, and more. Participants also heard directly from older adults, who were encouraged to send in 60-second clips describing what has helped them feel connected during the pandemic.
“Working internationally benefits the field of spirituality and aging immensely,” said Kuepfer. “The conference has been an opportunity for researchers from a variety of disciplines, along with spiritual-care practitioners, to collaborate, sharing observations and research findings, and learning together about spiritual needs we hold in common across religions and cultures as we grow older. It’s also an opportunity to engage diverse resources, like the Australian Aboriginal [deep listening] practice of Dadirri, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s three-step approach to unwelcome experiences (Jewish), or the use of storytelling and song by East African elders.”
Participants expressed their gratitude for the chance to expand their knowledge and connect with others sharing the same passions. “As spiritual-care persons, we can feel very alone in our work,” noted a participant during the final live session. “It has been wonderful to be reminded that, all over the world, we are a team making a difference, and how important this work is.”
An in-person conference will take place in 2022 on Grebel’s campus, which will continue this year’s theme and discussions in person.
For more information, or to register for next year’s event, visit https://uwaterloo.ca/ageing-spirituality/. While this year’s conference has passed, recordings are still available. Those interested can register online, until Sept. 30, to receive paid access to the recorded sessions, pre-recorded sessions and posters.