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 dêtre 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 (email@example.com)
resources from the Leveson Centre