Aging is a spiritual journey.

What a Gift It Was: A Report on the 6th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality

by Nancy Gordon, Director, CLH Center for Spirituality and Aging

The CLH Center for Spirituality and Aging has always been about seeking to support the spiritual journey of aging.  A major way that has happened has been through educational events for professionals and volunteers who work with older adults in a variety of settings—retirement communities, adult day services, congregations.  Since coming to the Center in 2008, I have sought to continue the fine tradition of events begun by my predecessor, Don Koepke.

In the spring of 2013 Susan and John McFadden did two one-day workshops with me about their work on creating communities of care for persons with Alzheimer’s disease.  Later that summer Susan and John attended the 5th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality in Edinburg, where Susan presented one of the key addresses.  At the end of that conference the loose organization of folk who sponsor these conferences decided that the next one should be in the United States.  And as Susan said in her call to me about that, “I thought of you.”

I knew it was a big leap to go from presenting a few one-day events in the course of a year to hosting and sponsoring a conference spread over four days, with multiple major speakers and workshop presenters.  But it was an opportunity to reach a wider audience and to bring folk together in the United States who see supporting the spiritual journey of older adults as the major component of their work.  These folk are often lone voices in their settings and a conference like the one we envisioned would be an opportunity for these like-minded folk to gather to learn from and to support one another.  So with the support of the CLH Board and Front Porch, we began.

After consultation with the broader international committee of folk from the British Isles and Australia who planned the previous conferences, Susan and I formed a national committee and began the process of shaping the 6th International Conference to be held in Los Angeles, October 4-7, 2015.  Wanting to ensure that the conference addressed the many facets of aging, not just the hearty and hale, we chose the theme, “Paradox and Promise in the Pilgrimage of Aging.” Over the course of many months, plenary speakers were chosen and contacted, proposals for workshops, lectures, seminars and posters were received and vetted and gradually, the conference took shape.

We were able to secure a wonderful conference venue at the Center for Healthy Communities that is provided by the California Endowment near Union Station in downtown LA.  Kingsley Manor, a Front Porch community, provided the Hollywood setting for our opening event, “Reel Aging.”  Local actors were found to perform the play, “The Forgiving and the Forgetting” which explores a family’s journey through Alzheimer’s with humor and love.  We had musical bards who opened and closed our days with song, and an amazing conference art project based on a representation of a labyrinth.  And on the first day conference participants had the opportunity to walk a labyrinth.

I envisioned a conference that enabled connections to be made and nourished and where rich conversations occurred and where, at the end, we would feel we’d been on a mini-pilgrimage together. After months of planning and work it happened. One hundred fifty people from England, Scotland, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States gathered to learn and journey together through the four days.  My vision for the conference was more than fulfilled.

In the final session, Susan McFadden offered her reflections on the conference as a whole.  She began   by saying,

Most of us have attended many conferences, but as the years pass, I think we will recall the gathering in Los Angeles in October of 2015, as formative and transformative. . . A small conference like this affords such a rare opportunity for meaningful learning and the renewal and formation of relationships that can profoundly affect our lives.

I was collecting verbal comments throughout the conference and after the conference many participants sent me a note commenting on the impact it had on them.  Here’s a sampling:

It was unlike so many other conferences in that it felt so cohesive. On returning home I typed up and reviewed my notes from the various plenary speakers and realized that each reflected a piece of a whole, like Indra’s web.  –A workshop-presenter.

I especially enjoyed how you wove the singing, music and art into the experience—it was truly lovely.  –Scholarship recipient.

The conference was beautifully organized, full of great learning, great colleagues and big heart.  Kudos to you and your team.  –Plenary speaker

Although I was present very briefly, I could see the richness of your program and how many people you were able to touch in many profound ways.  With deep gratitude for including me. –Local poster presenter

It truly was a spectacular experience.  I am very grateful for all of your personal effort as well as those of the committee.  For me it was not only the opportunity to be spiritually nourished by the presentations, but also to catch up with friends who have nourished me throughout the years.  Seeing people who have defined me as a person for the past 25 years was uplifting and sustaining.  –Workshop presenter

The Conference on Aging and Spirituality was just what I needed.  Every session, every keynote, every activity was so well done, well organized, useful and enjoyable.  The Inner Voice workshop and Labyrinth provided me with much opportunity for reflection and peace.  I’m heading towards a work transition and need the space to reflect on the meaning of the work I do.  –Conference participant

I learned a great deal during the four days and will now unashamedly borrow some of the ideas for future work.  The film show [Reel Aging] was really imaginative and the play such a good way getting ideas across.  I do feel part of the family promoting spiritual matters.  –Former conference host

            “You do food well!” Spoken at the Gala Dinner by one of our musical bards

“This conference is the only conference that addresses in its totality what I do.  I’m taking a new position when I return and I made coming here a prerequisite of my taking the job.”  Spoken by a retirement community chaplain.

“I loved the Conference.  It was one of the highlights of my 20-year career as a chaplain.” –Conference participant, retirement community chaplain

Don Koepke, director emeritus of the CLH Center, summed it up when he said, “This was the best conference I’ve ever attended.”

None of this would have happened if California Lutheran Homes hadn’t taken the creative step fifteen years ago of creating this very unique Center.  Because of its history of creating educational events, we were offered this opportunity to sponsor and host this conference in its first incarnation in the United States.  It was such a privilege for me to be able to lead this effort and I’m grateful to California Lutheran Homes for this amazing opportunity.  The conference was a large gift to the wider aging community and it is a gift that will continue to reverberate over time.

(You can see the whole program and read blogs written by participants before and after the conference at the conference website, www.6thinternationalconference.org.)