“Old age is not for sissies,” quipped Celia McBride, one of six presenters at the annual Aging and Spirituality Seminar sponsored by the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging (RIA) and hosted by Conrad Grebel University College on June 13-14. But, McBride said, we all have access to an “infinite well” of spiritual resources to draw on as we journey through aging and death.
RIA, a charitable foundation dedicated to enhancing care and quality of life for older adults, promotes research and education as it tackles issues facing an aging population.
Jane Kuepfer, the Schlegel specialist in spirituality and aging, based at Grebel, organized the event this year, along with Miriam Frey, a spiritual director who coordinates Ontario Jubilee, a program of training in spiritual direction. Fashioned as a retreat, the event balanced information with experiential learning, providing time for silence and reflection.
Just under 100 people attended the two-day retreat, entitled, “Aging and Spirituality: Finding Courage and Resilience.” They included chaplains, pastors, spiritual directors, psychotherapists, nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, as well as students, seniors, and caregivers. The six presenters all had experience in spiritual direction alongside other areas of expertise.
The theme of the retreat was the role of spirituality in finding courage and resilience in our work, our homes and ourselves. Facing the challenges and difficulties of illness, aging and dying can take us into unknown territory, but in the same way that grit inside an oyster transforms into a pearl, our fears and frustrations can be transformed into something beautiful.
Dale Guenter, a family physician who offered one of the workshops, reflected on how our healthcare system is “bent toward prolonging life regardless of how well we are living,” and, as a result, healthcare providers perceive death as a failure. He would like to see more integration of spiritual care into physical care, so that people can live well even as life draws to a close. Teresa Bryant, another presenter, insisted that “right to the last minute we have the potential to change, to love.”
Guenter encouraged participants to have conversations with family and loved ones around illness, aging, death and end-of-life decisions. He challenged people to embrace their aging and share their values about life, so that family and caregivers know what they want and need.
In her workshop, Kuepfer helped participants discern their own spiritual resources for aging, illness and dying. She defined spiritual resources as “those things, internal and external, that are available to address our deep human need for such spiritual values as love, hope, peace and joy.” People named a variety of things like music, prayer, walking in the natural world, writing, solitude and sitting by water, exploring how and why those things sustain them. Kuepfer affirmed that when we recognize our spiritual resources, we can learn to “live past the fear.”
Frey led a workshop in which participants had an opportunity to learn and practice compassionate listening. She emphasized its three aspects: listening to the other, listening for God’s spirit, and paying attention to your own internal responses. Good listening is not about fixing things or helping someone find a solution. It “honours their story as sacred,” and allows them to be where they are in their story. Done well it invites people to “go more deeply into their story.”
McBride chose to explore self-care for the caregiver in one of her workshops. She emphasized that despite our feelings of guilt about taking time for ourselves when our dependents are suffering, and our insecurities about “being enough,” we need to take time “to attend to our own inner lives.” Doing so means we can “build the kind of resilience necessary to rise to the challenges of caregiving.” Especially when facing dementia and a situation where there appears to be no way to connect, it is important to meet people where they are, with no judgment and no agenda to try to change them. In order to simply be present and “become a witness to their current state of being” we need to be “in fit spiritual condition.”
People who attended the retreat found that it nurtured and inspired them in their professional life, and it also gave them resources to reflect on their family situations and personal journeys with aging.
‘God just isn’t finished with me yet’