Experts Suggest Psychotherapists Can Counsel on Spirituality: Expert Analysis from the Annual Conference of the American Society on Aging

By Harrison, Laird | Clinical Psychiatry News, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Experts Suggest Psychotherapists Can Counsel on Spirituality: Expert Analysis from the Annual Conference of the American Society on Aging


Harrison, Laird, Clinical Psychiatry News


SAN FRANCISCO - Contrary to decades of tradition - and Sigmund Freud - psychotherapists working with frail elders should offer counseling on spirituality, according to three experts who have straddled the therapy-spirituality line in their own practices.

"I'm convinced you can take process psychology and marry it to theology," Jim Ellor, Ph.D., D.Min., professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., said at the conference.

One reason that psychotherapists have avoided discussing their patients' spirituality is that they confuse spirituality with religion, said Donald Koepke, director emeritus of the California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging, in Anaheim, Calif. Since the days of Sigmund Freud, who saw religion as a kind of neurosis, psychotherapists have been taught to avoid religion.

"While everyone may not have a religion, or be what we call religious, everyone has spirituality," said Mr. Koepke. "It's core beliefs. It's what drives them and helps them to experience the world."

He gave the example of Audrey, a communist atheist he met in the nursing home where he worked as chaplain. When Audrey was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mr. Koepke visited her and asked how she felt about having little time left.

"I move over and make room for someone else," she answered. But she went on. "The purpose in life is to leave the world better than you found it," she said. "I have done that." She went on to describe her activism in the labor movement.

Mr. Koepke said he left Audrey's room feeling that "she felt connected to that which was greater than herself."

He said that everyone has four spiritual needs: to find meaning; to give love; to receive love; and to feel forgiveness, hope, and creativity. Something about the experience of living in a nursing home gives people an opportunity to face these needs, he added. …

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