Tapping the spirit

Tapping the spirit

Health and wellness professionals often feel challenged to support their older clients’ in the spiritual dimension of wellness. Here is one perspective on spirituality and its influence on physical well-being
by Donald R. Koepke

At one time, the disciplines of physical health and spirituality seemed worlds apart. Physical health focused on the body, while spirituality emphasized the soul. The physical was the world of physicians and physical therapists, x-rays and stethoscopes— a world that could be seen, charted and analyzed. Spirituality, on the other hand, was seen to be intangible. Like a puff of wind, spirituality was both experienced and unknowable at the same time. The physical was controllable: the doorways to health were exercise and nutrition. But the spiritual talked about “things that are beyond knowing,” which sounded to many like wishful thinking.

But the differences between the physical and the spiritual are eroding. The research of Harold Koenig (1994, 1997, 2001) and others has helped to gain recognition for the interplay between our physical and spiritual selves. Studies point to people having greater health, longevity, even faster healing, if they participate in events that support the spirit as well as the body.

As a clinical theologian, I was once struck by something noted immunologist and researcher Dr. David Felton said at Grand Rounds at King Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. Felton was then doing research into the immune system at the University of California’s Irvine Medical School. Although I did not grasp everything Felton said in his lecture, I understood his contention that the immune system is strengthened by spiritual practices. Felton went so far as to suggest that physicians were doing their patients a dis-service if they did not prescribe (or at least encourage) spiritual practices for their patients. Why? Because Felton believed the physicians’ medical interventions would be made more effective if teamed with patients’ spiritual activities.

So what is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual?

I can speak only from the observations and insights gained as a chaplain in long-term care communities. From this perch, I see two major effects the spiritual has upon the physical: motivation and insight.


Motivation: finding meaning in life and experiences
Motivation is crucial to physical wellbeing. People who work in physical health must be excellent motivators, for it is hard at times for a patient to believe the pain they endure or the energy they expend will be worth it in the long run. But sometimes all the encouragement, pushing and pulling, patience and persistence fall on deaf ears. Is the individual depressed? Perhaps. Has the person reached a limit in his or her physical abilities? Maybe. Could a different voice help? Possibly. But I would suggest also looking at this person’s spirituality.


We can talk about spirituality as religiosity, e.g. how much someone goes to church, synagogue, temple or mosque, but in reality it is much more. Spirituality has to do with how individuals make meaning of what happens to them, affecting how they feel and even act when confronted by conflicts or barriers. Spirituality influences whether people see a disability as an insurmountable mountain or a new challenge.

Do ill or aging clients believe that Life (God, Allah or a Higher Power) is on their side, no matter what pain they experience in the moment? Or do they believe life has encumbered them with all sorts of problems? Do individuals feel as though Life will support them and give them strength in adversity? Or do they feel alone and vulnerable when engaging in physical challenges? The answers all depend on how they perceive life and why sufferings come.

Someone who feels motivated to be involved in a lot of things, including the physical self, feels vital, capable and empowered on the inside. I have observed these vital individuals during exercise classes in a skilled care center, where all participants were in wheelchairs and most would likely remain there the rest of their days. And, in a long-term care community, it was the 100-year-old spiritually alive and content resident who staff had to monitor to make sure she would not overdo it on the exercise machines.


When older clients are not motivated by usual methods, health and wellness professionals may need to consider how these individuals are or are not finding meaning in life.



Insight: providing healing

I have also observed that spirituality can help older adults make sense of life when physical exercise doesn’t help.

When it comes to their bodies, many older people want to experience healing, which they consider being cured of what ails them. These individuals want life to return to the way it was—in other words, restoration. But healing can also come through coping. By coping, I do not mean people giving in and becoming resolved to a situation; I mean individuals allowing the new situation to become integrated into their person and way of life.

Sooner or later, time diminishes the body. Although people can delay or lessen this diminishment through physical fitness, they can’t stop it. But spirituality reminds them that life does not end when they can no longer walk a mile. Spirituality reminds them that something new comes into life, even as other parts diminish.

“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 124). This is the day, not yesterday, when I could walk on my own. This is the day, not yesterday, when I had no pain. This is the day—a day of possibilities and life, vitality and growth—not yesterday, when I lived in my own home. To embrace this fact of life is a healing experience. It doesn’t restore me; it renews me.

Spirituality brings another insight regarding physical fitness. Sometimes there is no cure, and the ability to cope seems distant and impossible to grasp. When those things happen, an individual can still find healing through care.

For instance, an older woman in a wheelchair has survived a massive stroke that has limited both speech and movement severely. She will never again walk the way she did. Right now, she can’t seem to cope with the stroke and integrate it into her new life. But she can receive the healing of someone providing care: a simple touch, a word of encouragement, an expression of understanding or a warm smile of acceptance that says No matter how bad things are at the moment, you are going to be okay.

Let me share a personal example. In the latter years of my mother’s life, she would often ask me to hug her. She was stricken with advanced macular degeneration, hypertension and related health problems, and my hug said to her, I care; I hurt with you; you are not alone.

This expanded view of healing—cure, coping and care—can help health and wellness professionals who work with older adults. For as they involve themselves with people who may or may not be able to complete physical exercises, they touch these individuals at the point of their vulnerabilities and fears, as well as their hopes and successes.

Spirituality sees beyond the body to how people respond to their physical abilities or disabilities. And, in every situation, spirituality allows us to help our clients heal, be it through cure (restoration), coping (renewal), or care.


Donald R. Koepke is the director of the California Lutheran Homes’ Center for Spirituality and Ethics in Aging, headquartered in Anaheim, California. Readers can subscribe to the Center’s free monthly e-newsletter, CSEA Spirit, by sending an email request to dkoepke@frontporch.net.




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This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging www.icaa.cc