Training to Volunteer as a Spiritual Caregiver for the Elderly in Somerville-Cambridge, MA

Last month I started a class that trains people to volunteer as spiritual caregivers for the elderly in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. My sister took the course earlier this year and absolutely loved it. I’ve been trying a lot of new things this year, but it took me some courage to sign-up. I’m really glad I did.

This program came about when Nancy Willbanks was working at the Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services and noticed while we have all sorts of programs to help elderly people with transportation, medical care, food delivery, etc. there’s nothing in place to support elderly people when they are dealing with crises and are in need of spiritual support.


What is Spiritual Caregiving?

What does “spiritual support” mean? I’m not exactly sure. I guess most people would be more comfortable using the term “emotional support”. That is part of the job I’m sure but it seems to go beyond that. One of the points made in the course was that the types of issues we’re dealing with go far beyond Freudian psychology to bigger questions and anxieties (it’s worth noting though, that we aren’t working with people who are suicidal, have serious mental illness, or facing death: that’s beyond the scope of this program).

My uncle, Robert Gerzon, wrote a book called Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety. One of his central points in the book is that there are actually three different types of anxiety: natural anxiety (fear when we hear a loud noise in the dark, anxiety right before a performance, etc.), toxic anxiety (often repetitious, always unhelpful, negative thoughts and worries, OR an unrealistically positive “pollyanna voice” that sets us up for disappointment), and sacred anxiety.

Sacred anxiety is anxiety that comes from facing life’s big questions: our purpose, God/the divine, the nature of the universe, love, meaning, life, death, etc. Sacred anxiety is about issues and questions that might not have an answer. I think that’s what spiritual caregiving is about in this program. It’s about helping elderly people with their struggle and pain around those issues.

As I said, many of these issues don’t have “answers” or anything you can “solve” or “fix”. So a lot of the course concentrates on listening. Because listening is often the only comfort one can provide when trying to help people facing these issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy!

It takes a lot to stay centered and present and hold space while someone is dealing with these profound things. My goodness, it does.


Example of Helpful Course Material: Listening When Someone Feels Guilty

One of the things I found most helpful in the class is the part about listening in a balanced way when someone is feeling guilty and wants to share. We talked about different approaches according to different characters: Harsh Harry, Libertine Larry, and Caring Cary.

So Harsh Harry comes down hard on the confessor, who then just feels worse and/or gets defensive. And Libertine Larry insists right away that the person is not really at fault and dismisses their negative feelings. Both approaches don’t give the person a chance to really share and address how they feel.

I’ve noticed myself and others take both approaches. But it seems in my life I’ve noticed the Libertine Larry approach more often: people who might think they’re trying to be nice, but actually they’re refusing to really engage with the person and how they feel. Harsh Harry isn’t really engaging either. It can be difficult to engage with emotions especially when we’re trying to avoid our own.

Then there’s Caring Cary: he listens in a balanced way. He listens and doesn’t try to force the person to feel guilty but also doesn’t allow them to dismiss or rationalize away the appropriate guilt they might feel. Cary engages and helps the person process their negative emotion so they can forgive themselves and possibly try to do better next time.

And as I just read in another book from the course: you’re not going to instantly follow a new approach. In this case, talking about failing to be assertive: “When – not if – this happens be kind to yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back for being able to identify a nonassertive response, and take a moment to identify what you’ll do next time. And then let it go. Inconsistency is a legitimate part of the normal learning curve.You can’t develop new patterns without occasionally slipping back into old ones. Concentrate on what you’ve done well.”

The names of the two books I’ve referenced here are: Christian Caregiving – a Way of Life by Kenneth Haugk and Speaking the Truth in Love – How to be an Assertive Christian by  Ruth N. Koch and Kenneth Haugk.


Using Christian Books for an Interfaith Volunteer Program

Did I mention the course books are really Christian? And the woman who runs the program is an ordained Christian minister? And one of my fellow students who is Jewish by heritage and identifies as Buddhist, chose to leave the class because it seemed too Christian and/or theistic for him?

Actually, Nancy makes a real effort in class to “translate” much of the course material into general spiritual terms. And in the class handouts she includes writings and teachings from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and even Wicca.

When my sister told me about this course months ago she said excitedly, “When I read this Christian stuff, I can’t help seeing so many parallels to the Buddhist books I’ve been reading! It really seems to me like they’re saying the same thing.”

Generally, I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this sentiment. But my sister seemed genuine, I trust her judgement a lot, and I believe there is a lot of truth to the idea that ultimately great spiritual traditions are “all saying the same thing”.

Throughout Kenneth Haugk’s book Christian Caregiving: a Way of Life he says the book is for Christians and that Christians have a unique ability to offer the best caregiving. But all of the advice, information, and tools in the book seems very helpful for anyone. I don’t find it quite as easy as my sister but I am able to “translate” most of what he writes into terms I can appreciate, even though I don’t identify as Christian.

I think a lot of the information is very practical, honest, realistic, and beautiful for anyone. A lot of it is about balance, being present, realistic, and honest (including about your motivations for caregiving), and making sure to take care of yourself too.

I’m thankful the course exists and I’m thankful Nancy is teaching it in an interfaith way, as much as possible. I do wish there were books and courses that were from a broader perspective so people of all faiths could easily learn these skills and help others. By “all faiths” I include people who don’t have a religion. I know many people are turned off by the subject of religion, faith, spirituality, the soul, and so on, because of negative associations they have. I share many of those negative associations with religion and, honestly, Christianity specifically. This course has forced me to re-question some of my views on Christianity. Mainly, each Christian is an individual and even if I disagree on some things it doesn’t mean that person isn’t doing great things in the world and that I can’t learn from them.

(I will say, it seems like everyone in the class is very gay-friendly: not all devout Christians are homophobic, certainly not in Massachusetts.)


Wherever You Go, There’s Your Soul

And again it helps me to refer to another family member, this time my aunt Rachael Kessler who passed away a few years ago from cancer: she wrote a book called The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. The premise of the book was that even if we want to keep religion and school (church and state) separate, students/young people are still going to bring their souls to school! And they are still going to face profound challenges (”sacred anxieties”) and need support.

I really appreciate this idea and how it applies to all of us. I wish I had expressed this appreciation more when she was alive. When the book came out in the year 2000, I was pretty closed minded to any reference to “school” that didn’t have the prefix “un-” attached to it.

My point in referring to her book is: even if many people don’t like thinking about or even believe in spirituality and soul, that doesn’t mean people don’t struggle with issues of meaning, purpose, life, the universe, and everything.

When my mom heard that the spiritual caregiving program serves elderly people who are facing a crisis she said, “Doesn’t that apply to pretty much every elderly person, all the time?” I would take it a step further and say that it applies to most people of any age pretty much all the time!

Imagine if people had more spiritual support and caregiving at other times in their lives: teens, young adults searching for direction, new parents, people in a midlife crisis, grieving people of all ages, etc. What a wonderful service that would be.

Also, the whole Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services program is state funded so it puts a very valuable, real human face on a social welfare program. Those so called “entitlement programs” often have a bad reputation. But it seem like the programs they offer are very helpful for people who really need help.

At the start of this post I referred to the courage it took me to start this course. Actually, in class we often pair up and “practice” listening and caregiving. Sometimes we’re roleplaying a character but often we’re asked to share our own spiritual struggles. It’s scary to do and has highlighted just how rarely I do that even with my close friends and family. But it’s kind of liberating and comforting, both to share and to listen. Anyway, I’m glad I joined the course.


In Conclusion: There is No Conclusion

I don’t really have a point or a conclusion. These are just some things I’ve thought about and observed. I’m sure I’ll have more to say by the end of the course in December, let alone after I start providing spiritual caregiving for someone.

Anyway, writing this blog post is actually just a big excuse to avoid doing the reading for the class that’s due tomorrow. Just kidding, of course… but I better get to it now. Thanks for reading.

(Here is a link to info on the volunteer program which has a new training class starting in January, 2013: Aging and Spiritual Well-being – Spiritual Caregiver Volunteer – Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services.)

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