Aging is a spiritual journey.

This book was years in birthing. It began in 1994, when I was a chaplain at UCLA Medical Center. There was a highly skilled and practical social worker on my unit who understood boundaries and, at times, became the self appointed definer and enforcer of those boundaries. There were the events and decision that were the province of the physician, others the psychiatrist, still others the social worker. But she didn’t have a clue as to what the role of the chaplain was or could be. The sad thing was neither did I, even though I came to chaplaincy after being 27 years serving in congregations. Because of this social worker, I discovered that my seminary training equipped me to be a theologian in the pulpit, a pseudo-social worker in home visiting, and a junior-shrink in the counseling office. My skill set and even my language was the same as social workers, psychologists and even physicians. So what did I bring that was unique to the interdisciplinary table during rounds at the hospital?

One item was spiritual assessment. Strangely, I had never heard of spiritual assessments either in seminary or in the parish. Assessing a patient’s spirituality was indeed unique. But what was spirituality and how did it affect behavior, even healing? It wasn’t until I became chaplain in retirement communities that I begin to discern a glimmer of a definition that worked not only for theists like myself, but the many non-theists that I had come to know and respect at UCLA. That glimmer, that spark, was fanned into a flame when I joined the American Society on Aging and its constituent group, the Forum on Religion, Spirituality, and Aging (FORSA). It was in FORSA that I found a group of interdisciplinary professionals who were seeking the same answers as I. While many had a many years head start, I was a dedicated and fast learner. I found a professional and personal home in FORSA.

At the same time, my relationships with persons of other disciplines outside of FORSA continued to be frustrating. Even as I gained confidence and the words to express what I was experiencing as I explored the spiritual lives of older adults, persons of other disciplines continued to debate spirituality efficacy or worse, just ignored any attempt on my part to convince them otherwise. I consciously tried to avoid the tendency for professional to believe that everyone else should get behind their view of the human, their understanding on health, their view of the world, as if psychiatry, social work, nursing, or physiology was “God’s greatest gift to the world.” I was trained as a pastor, who often have big heads or big egos, but as I explored the interplay between old age and the spiritual I became convinced that while other disciplines addressed an essential component in the lives of older people, only spirituality truly looked at the person as a whole. As spiritual caregivers, I and others in FORSA became increasingly aware that the social, psychological, physical aspects of life separated the patient, separating them into parts, rather than addressing them as a whole. So much of healing, be it sociological, psychological, or physiological, is based upon how each client receives and integrates the bio-medical model so rampant within healthcare in American today.

So this book became a desire, a wish, a hope, a glimmer in my eye. I didn’t expect the network of persons both in and outside of FORSA would embrace the idea as strongly as they have. But as I began to recruit I only had one “No, not right now” response. Many of these persons are my mentors in gerontology. Many I had come to appreciate the passion for older adults and spirituality that surpassed my own. While I believe that anyone interested in older adults will be helped by the insights that my friends have shared in these pages, the target audience are professionals who are providing services to and with older adults.

In the last two years my perspectives have been revisited and even challenged because of the views of the authors in this book. Other personal beliefs have been sharpened as they are given voice and words. I trust that this book will encourage you to go deeper into this realm of the spirit so that the fine work that you are presently providing older adults via your discipline will be enhanced and become more effective and fulfilling as you become aware of and use The Essential Spirit.

Donald R. Koepke, Editor