Keeping Spirit and Hope Alive as We Serve

Article excerpt

Marty Richards received the 2008 award from the American Society on Aging's (ASA) Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging (FORSA) during ASA's recent annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Based in Port Townsend, Wash., Richards has been a social worker for four decades, often working with congregations of many faiths. Richards, who holds a master's of social work degree from the University of Washington, is in private practice and also teaches at the university's School of Social Work and its Institute on Aging as part of the online certificate program in gerontology.

Richards' new book, Caresharing: A Reciprocal Approach to Caregiving and Care Receiving in the Complexities of Aging Illness or Disability, will be published later this year by SkyLight Paths Publishing of Woodstock, Vt. The following article is based on her awards address at the Aging in America conference in March.

As I consider keeping the spirit and hope alive in my work, I reflect on more than 40 years of gerontological social work. I began my career in aging in the late 19605 as an eager young social worker; now, as I turn 63 this year, elders are my peers and I see sharing with elders through a different lens.

Though theologians and geriatrics practitioners in many fields have developed diverse views on spirituality and hope, I've found that spiritual awareness is crucial in helping answer questions of why we exist, why and how we live and die, and what we are called to do. Such awareness assists us in exploring life's meaning and purpose. The spiritual involves a narrative and people's stories, especially for elders, connect with those of others and, ultimately, to God's story.

One lesson I've learned in working with older people is that it does not take full cognition to keep the spirit alive. My most profound spiritual learning has come from those struggling with dementia.

In addition, hospice has taught me that hope is constantly changing. In their book Hope and Hopelessness: Critical Clinical Constructs (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995), Carol J. Farran and her colleagues defined key attributes of hope, including "hope as an experiential process, hope as a spiritual or transcendent process, hope as a rational thought process and hope as a relational process." As people who share with elders and their caregivers, we professionals in aging must be mindful of these dimensions.

Although all of these attributes of hope are valuable, the relational aspect has been especially important to me. We may not be able to resolve another's concerns, but we can offer a sense of hope by standing shoulder to shoulder with elders in their journeys of loss, chronic illness or transitions.

At this time when gerontology-and the world-swirls in constant change, it's easy to get discouraged: Funds for programs are limited, and not enough workers are choosing careers in gerontology or geriatrics. …