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Honouring the human spirit in aged care

Residential and community carestaff in a large Victorian provider are being trained in providing spiritual care to seniors.

While many children across Australia are excited and looking forward to Santa’s arrival on Christmas Day, others in our community are awaiting this time with a sense of dread. For older people who have lost their life partner or contact with family and friends over the years, Christmas can be a lonely time. For other people who have experienced a lifetime of hardship, it can be a time for reflection.

Many of the 1500 recipients of the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s aged care services across Victoria have faced multiple disadvantages throughout their lives and the Christmas period raises many questions in their minds, according to Fr Jeff O’Hare, the Brotherhood’s chaplain.

“Many of our residents are socially and financially disadvantaged and have lost contact with their family and friends over the years,” O’Hare says.

“They often have poor social skills, limited education, have battled with drug and alcohol throughout their life and have dual or multiple physical and psychiatric diagnoses.

“When they come to be in our care, and with Christmas approaching, they reflect on their lives and what they have been through, openly questioning: what gives meaning to my life?”

O’Hare says spirituality provides a coping mechanism to older people as they reflect on their life journey.

“As we take care of the issues of housing and welfare for our residents in terms of shelter, food and medical nourishment, it stands to reason that we have a responsibility to take care of their spiritual yearnings and needs too.

“Ensuring spiritual care is not just an add on but an integral part of our care provision has become the focus of our work in aged care in the last four years,” he says.

A research project undertaken in 2005 on a number of the Brotherhood’s residential aged care facilities showed that while staff were well aware of the benefits of spiritual care, little had knowledge of how to provide this care to residents. In practice, the only spiritual care that was provided centred on religious services.

“The research showed that if new residents indicated they had no religion when they were assessed on arrival at a facility, then they were not provided with any spiritual care,” says Sandra Hills, general manager of the Brotherhood’s aged and community care services.

“Yet religion may or may not be part of one’s spirituality and in response to our research findings we organised a series of training workshops on spiritual care for our staff in residential aged care throughout 2006 to 2008.”

Hills says the ongoing training program explains what spirituality means and focuses on spiritual care being seen as part of integrated care and being incorporated into everyday tasks.

“This means that all staff have a role to play in the provision of spiritual care and it is not just a job for people with specific religious training,” Hills says.

To better understand the spiritual needs of residents, staff were encouraged to think about their own spirituality and spiritual care needs before being guided through a number of examples of how they could identify residents’ spiritual care needs and how they could respond.

The training also identified practical spiritual care resources such as different assessment forms which do not highlight different religions but delve more into the spirituality areas that are important for residents.

O’Hare believes spiritual care is about building relationships that give people being cared for the opportunity to express things they may never have had the opportunity to say throughout their lives.

As a result of the training a small spiritual care group composed of staff and residents has been established in each of the Brotherhood’s aged care facilities. Diversional therapists play a key role in each of these groups and O’Hare assists with the provision of training. The groups provide leadership in spiritual care, assisting staff in one-to-one spiritual interactions as well as developing group spiritual activities.

“Already the training to date is showing benefits to staff and residents and the formation of leadership groups has strengthened the culture of spiritual care in each of our facilities,” Hills says.

The Brotherhood is now expanding the training program to staff in their community care services.

Go to www.bsl.org.au. For more information contact Sandra Hills on (03) 9483 1375.

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