By Sr. M. Peter Lillian Di Maria
In 2000, the Avila Institute of Gerontology, the educational arm of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, saw a need to develop a spiritual care program that focused on the geriatric population. The Geriatric Spiritual Care Certificate Program was launched in 2001, and at this writing, more than 100 students have attended. Some are from other religious orders caring for their elders. Others are laypeople working in a geriatric setting. Others want to increase their knowledge and experience with elders. Some might not be working with elders but want to increase their own self awareness of spirituality.
The curriculum is designed to prepare spiritual caregivers ministering to elders, especially those living in long-term care settings, and includes 65 hours of class time on dynamics of spiritual care, theology of suffering, active listening, moral ethics, palliative care, and community networking. Students also participate in 55 hours of clinical experience, which includes observations of long-term pastoral care, resident visits, a group reflection process, theological reflections, a life review, and a final reflection paper.
The curriculum was designed to provide a spiritual framework that stresses the importance of being present to all elders and helps students recognize the unique needs of those who have memory impairment. In fact, the idea of “being” is stressed throughout the program, as those ministering spiritual care are encouraged to recognize the importance of “being” for one another. Forging these relationships allows students to see the differences between care partnering and caregiving, emphasizing the importance of care partnering with elders.
Our GSC Certificate Program also serves as a bridge to a more in-depth study of pastoral care through clinical pastoral education. In addition, the program is an option for those who want to volunteer with elders but are unable to commit to the CPE course.
Though the program offers numerous benefits, one of the greatest challenges is encouraging people to commit to work with elders. This ministry can be complicated and demanding, even though also extremely rewarding. For elders experiencing cognitive decline and memory impairment, it is often a time of great loneliness; thus, there is a great need for someone to be there to provide spiritual comfort. By providing opportunities for people to learn in the classroom and through interactions with elders, students can begin to understand just how important spiritual care is in this chapter of a person’s life.
In 2017, I was asked to be a part of a committee called the Partners in Pastoral Care, which was funded by the Raskob Foundation and facilitated by the NACC. This partnership has been a great blessing to me, as it allowed me to work with others who are answering the education needs of other ministries.
Working with this dedicated committee emphasized the importance of sharing our programs, best practices, and other aspects of our education because together we can encourage others to become more involved in the different works of Church ministry. Providing people with knowledge about whom they are ministering to spiritually is key to helping people become comfortable with being more active in the many works of the Church.
Spiritual care to elders, especially in long-term care, is different from other forms of spiritual care in that many of the elders we serve are coming to stay with us permanently, making our facilities their new home. Our ministering becomes a long-term relationship. It is a specialized ministry, just as prison ministry or veterans’ ministry is. Each ministry is critical, and each ministry needs some common preparation. But each also requires some unique preparation.
I brought the Partners in Pastoral Care Committee discussions back to the GSC faculty, to review our content. We determined that the material was aligned with pastoral care competencies, which acknowledged our hope of being a bridge or introduction to CPE. Together, we saw areas of alignment with the pastoral competencies and made specific suggestions for the competencies for elder ministry. These suggestions were more specific to aging issues and long-term care, such as spirituality for memory impairment, ethical issues, palliative care, family concerns, and long-term relationships that form. We also included a cultural diversity module for both those we might minister to in care centers and those who minster with us.
The most important aspect of this ministry is those called to serve in pastoral care must serve with the utmost care and compassion that Jesus has taught us and our faith continues to nurture.
The committee members have shared many ideas and insights into how to provide high-quality programs that strengthen Catholic pastoral care ministries and ways to collaborate our best practices. I continue to take away many important insights regarding all ministries to our brothers and sisters, especially as it relates to each person spiritually. I have learned the great synergy we have in our works and have become acquainted with very talented people who I feel are a wealth of knowledge and show great compassion.
I continue to be grateful to David Lichter and the NACC for bringing us together to work on a very important project of the Church.
Sr. M. Peter Lillian Di Maria, O.Carm., is director of the Avila Institute of Gerontology in Germantown, NY.