January 15, 2021
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Tending to spiritual distress with aging and illness

By: Julie Ann Soukoulis
January 25, 2019

Spiritual distress is prevalent in advanced aging and disease.  Spirituality supported coping has often been neglected in western medicine. This is beginning to change because patients are emphasizing the need for the medical community‘s competence in spiritual care. Spiritual care has been reportedly lacking, primarily due to medical professionals’ de-prioritization and lack of time when their dominate focus is on the patients’ medical needs.  Patients however, priorities included understanding the qualities of human connectedness and fostering these skills in their healthcare providers.

To meet patient and caregiver preferences, healthcare providers are beginning to address their spiritual concerns. More patients and caregiver-centered spiritual care provisions, are beginning to emerge.  More often than not, medical care focuses on the physical dimension of health, like controlling pain and symptoms, but in this discussion, our interest is focused on those aspects of illness that affect you as a person and might cause you to consider the deeper questions of life. Such as relating to meaning, purpose and how we cope with difficult aspects of life as spiritual questions, but this might not be the word you use. Please use whatever language you want in this discussion. Whatever word makes you comfortable and thus resonates within you.

A study by the University of Minnesota reports “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and inter-connectedness.

Some may find that their spiritual life is intricately linked to their association with a church, temple, mosque or synagogue. Others may pray or find comfort in a personal relationship with God or a higher power. Still others seek meaning through their connections to nature or art. Like your sense of purpose, your personal definition of spirituality may change throughout your life, adapting to your own experiences and relationships.”

 Some questions you may was to consider for your own spiritual and health care are:

 In terms of your own illness experience, what are the deep questions you find yourself asking these days?

What does ‘spirituality’ mean to you?

In the healthcare setting, what sort of people could best support you with any deep emotional or spiritual questions you have?

In your opinion, what should be the role of different people in providing spiritual support in healthcare? Discuss with each of a nurse, doctor, GP, chaplain, social worker, psychologist, volunteer and community faith leaders. How could these people best support you? 

Based on your own understanding of spirituality, what in your experience are the most helpful things a healthcare provider can do if a patient has spiritual concerns? Can you share an example of a caregiving interaction where you felt your spirituality was addressed?

 Discuss with your aging loved one the ‘deeper questions of life’ which arises for patients with advanced disease and aging. Family caregivers can also consider their own deeper questions to ensure they are on the same understanding of how they can best meet the spiritual needs of their loved one in their care.  A wide range of spiritual questions, problems and concerns may be discovered, arising in four categories: existential, psychological, religious and social/relational. 

 When serious illness and aging is upon us, it is commonly a time when spirituality has been re-discovered, questioned and re-established in one’s life. Whether that means discussions, religious practices re-engaged, asking for prayers, attending religious or spiritual services.  I have noticed since my own father-in- law has turned 80, he has mentioned more about God in discussions. I know it seems to bring him comfort now where in years past- he didn’t find comfort in the church or our faiths practices as he does now.

 Be mindful however, not all are open to this spiritual path when dealing with a serious illness or advanced aging.  You must palpate their openness on the topic. Some can be offended by the mention of faith or religion so follow their lead. Listen to the words they are choosing when the topic is discussed, as this will tell you where their comfort level lies.


Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, to educate and encourage aging adults their & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern?  We’d love to hear from you at Home Instead Senior Care 586-1516 anytime.