Nov 29 2023

Spiritual care: In senior living, the whole person matters  

A woman plays a guitar in a song session at a senior living community.

Amid all the different life seasons, our emotional needs stay fairly consistent.

Younger people may be absorbed in education and job training, and later families, children, or careers. As they age, new concerns emerge, like addressing long-term health needs and figuring out major life transitions from downsizing a home to picking a retirement community.

Through it all, though, people have a deep need to feel valued, find meaning in their lives, share meaningful connections with others, and confront the ups and downs of life in a positive way.

If a retirement community takes care of the physical and logistical (like healthcare and housing) but neglects emotional and spiritual health, it’s missing an extremely important part of people’s lives.

Spiritual care deals with a person’s emotional core and sense of identity, and beliefs about what makes a meaningful life. For many people, religious beliefs are an important part of this identity. Others may simply focus on doing good and leaving a positive legacy, maintaining positive relationships, understanding their emotions and thriving emotionally, or finding ways to use their gifts in a fulfilling way.

Emotional well-being is critical as seniors navigate complex and sometimes very difficult circumstances. Some aspects of life for older adults bring joy and fulfillment, while others can cause acute anxiety and distress. They may experience major losses in their lives, such as the death of a spouse or good friend. They might feel a huge burden as caregivers for a partner in poor health or dealing with dementia. Or they may go through profound changes in relationships with family as their role shifts and they find themselves receiving care instead of giving it.

Here are a few ways that senior living communities can walk alongside older adults through this journey.

Dedicated resources

Communities hire nurses to take care of physical needs. They should also hire team members responsible for handling emotional needs, like a chaplain and counselors with experience and training in elder care. The important thing is that some team members have a primary focus on spending time with residents, listening to them, and offering support when needed.  

Participants in a reading group share around a table.

Bringing people together regularly

Forums and workshops to bring seniors together and share with each other and mental health experts can be a key way to build a sense of well-being. Community is an essential part of our emotional lives, and can be found in discussion groups where people share life challenges, hear about others’ successes and failures, laugh together, find an understanding ear, and simply express emotions that may be bottled up. These kinds of forums can cover a wide range of topics, from the positive to the difficult, but they should provide a safe place where seniors can forge relationships and realize that they are not alone.

Religious programming

While emotional health does not always include religion, for many it’s a deeply important part of their lives, and integral to how they find meaning and purpose in life.

Thoughtful and purposeful religious programming that meets the needs of a variety of beliefs and backgrounds will go a long way toward promoting emotional well-being. To achieve that, a management team that understands residents and their beliefs and practices is important.

It’s valuable to have a chaplain or similar spiritual advisor who is able to meet people where they are and walk with them in their faith journey.

A group of seniors practices yoga on a sunny lawn.

In action

At White Horse Village, a pastoral care coordinator works to provide support and guidance for residents and leads various programs. One of these is a regularly scheduled grief and loss support group, offering those who have recently lost a loved one a chance to share what they’re going through and learn about grief and ways to cope.

Other programs vary. For example, residents explored the book “The 12 Keys to Spiritual Vitality: Powerful Lessons on Living Agelessly,” covering topics like accepting your true self, celebrating faith, and achieving balance in life. Another time, they went through a workshop called “Well in Body, Wise in Mind, Whole in Spirit,” that covered everything from diet and exercise to positive relationships, continuing education, and spiritual life. These kinds of programs are a consistent staple.

Residents in Healthcare also share in regular visits, fellowship groups, and worship services.

Spiritual care will look different depending on the needs of a community, but the important factor is that leadership takes emotional health seriously, promoting a sense of peace and well-being among residents and treating them as whole people.