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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

Nurturing a sense of belonging

Gerry Burke of Age Concern, England

I visited a care home recently. I had a question for the manager: ‘What do you do to provide spiritual care for your residents?’ She hardly hesitated before saying: ‘I set them free.’ It was an utterly surprising reply and it gave me a great sense of liberation just listening. It was so simple and the evidence was all around me: the residents were clearly engaged with life, even those who because of failing memory or forms of dementia could only live for the moment.

I had been expecting, in a home provided by a church-based caring agency, to hear first about religious services and the ministrations of clergy. Not a bit of it; if anything, these came last. The most important activity of the home was nurturing a sense of belonging: giving those who live and work there every opportunity to express their humanity; offering necessary support; and, crucially, being prepared to take risks.

Working with older people is an opportunity to explore every facet of being human with all its creativity, failure, need and responsibility. This goes to the heart of what Age Concern believes about itself and about its work. We are interested in the whole human experience.

I have been asked to explore spirituality and ageing as an initiative within Age Concern, the federation of over 400 charities in England. In a newsletter earlier this year I wrote: ‘The subject is vast. It has many faces and many connections. It is about religious belief, but it is also about atheism. It concerns the inevitability of death, but it is relevant to the rudely healthy. It is about individuals and cultures, hope and despair, expectation and fulfilment, care and abandonment. It has no definition on which all can agree but many definitions in which all can share.’

Age Concern is a secular body; the word spirituality is associated with religious bodies. How, therefore, should we proceed? I was encouraged to read in Ageing and Spirituality (ed Moberg, Haworth Pastoral Press, 2001): ‘Meaning and purpose in life, belief and hope are universal hallmarks of human spirituality. It is important to recognise that religious involvement is often a component of spirituality, but spirituality does not necessarily imply that a religious component is present.’

The Age Concern perspective on spirituality can begin with this understanding. The common human experience is of a sense of belonging: to the human condition itself, to the people we have known, to the events which have shaped our lives, and to shared memory. When a sense of belonging is absent, our humanity is diminished.

Contemporary society has many approaches to the spiritual. People find completeness as human beings through the arts, through sport, through commitment to improving the environment, or through the amazing advances witnessed in science and greater understandings in philosophy. Our world-view has been influenced in ways we could not have imagined by the new approaches to life and living of feminism and the gay and lesbian movements. Many people have found an awakening of their inner selves through a variety of new age experiences. It does seem that in seeking a common approach to the spiritual, acknowledging a sense of belonging is crucial; it is what we do about this sense of belonging which leads to the spiritual dimension.

As a national secular federation of charities, Age Concern need not worry too much if it cannot agree explanations about the meaning of life. It is not our job. What we must do, however, is make it possible for older people to look at the meaning in their own lives. It is relatively easy to come up with grand theories about life, death and the universe. It is far more difficult to give an individual the space and time they need to reflect on their life, their relationships, their goodness and their failures. If Age Concern cannot do this, we are failing in a crucial part of our purpose.

The Age Concern purpose is to promote the well-being of all older people and to help make later life a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. Here is justification enough for our involvement in the ‘spiritual’ world. It is part of our raison d’être to be interested in the whole person and their well-being.

As a movement, we share this interest with a growing number of academic bodies, with health and social services providers, with the wider care industry and with those involved with dying and death, as well as communities of belief. Our colleagues working in these fields have welcomed our interest, not least because of our nationwide contact with thousands of older people.

It is likely that the language of religious practice and belief will still be present for many older people. This can no longer be said of many younger people, at least in the Christian tradition. It is important to acknowledge this because of the inter-generational caring connections between those with a language of religious belief and those with none, or very little. Younger people will be caring for older people but may be hesitant in dealing with what many consider to be an intensely personal area and their unfamiliarity with the concepts and terminology. How can those who have never learned this language offer support and understanding?

We need to be able to deal with this question. In Age Concern we can ensure that the standards we set for ourselves in day care and domestic care, for example, reflect our commitment to dealing with the well-being of the whole person, no matter from what background or belief. We can ensure that we offer sufficient support and training to both voluntary and paid staff. We need to encourage statutory bodies to fulfil their responsibilities and stated commitments in guaranteeing the spiritual welfare of older people. We intend to ask specialists in spirituality to inform us of issues and to identify potential initiatives.

We have not got an Age Concern definition of spirituality, yet. We may never need one. This is what we are happy to say, for now:
The spiritual is the part of living experience which cannot be immediately captured in words and images but which expresses the deepest longings of every human for the fulfilment of emotional and intellectual aspiration.
I would be glad to hear from colleagues in other disciplines and organisations who would like to help us develop our thinking.

Gerry Burke (

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