Compassion leads to better health outcomes

My previous post, and interview with Vida Jaugelis, a Spiritual Care Coordinator with the Fraser Valley Health Authority, brought out the work of spirituality and compassion in our hospitals and residential care facilities. This week continues that conversation as we look at different ways that compassion and a spiritual perspective can be realized more fully in our health care environment

Anna: How do mindfulness and meditation, prayer, impact your work?

Vida Jaugelis
Vida Jaugelis

Vida: I don’t formally practice Buddhist mindfulness techniques.   However, my practice is infused with mindfulness, insofar as I focus on being present in the moment – with the person before me.  As I listen, I try to set aside all distractions as well as any interpretations and speculations I may have about the person I am visiting. I try to “stay present” to the person, being mindful of the human being before me – who my own faith informs me reflects the image of the divine. That is how mindfulness permeates my practice. As far as the communities where I work, the residents are predominantly from a generation for whom eastern spirituality did not make much of an impact, as it has with baby boomers and Gen X , so I do not have a lot of people asking me about meditation or mindfulness. However, that’s probably not the case for some of my colleagues working in Metro Vancouver. The awareness of Eastern spiritual traditions and the practice of mindfulness would be much more prevalent there. 

 In the care setting, prayer in its Christian form does have religious connotation whereas meditation does not perhaps? 

Because Eastern meditation is rooted in Buddhism, a non-theistic religious tradition, this makes spiritual practices accessible to those who have no room for theism or belief in a supernatural god. That may be part of the reason for its attractiveness.  In the healthcare setting relaxation sessions in some ways have gone mainstream in a way that prayer as a therapeutic modality has not.  Prayer, as you point out, has religious connotations and people often associate prayer with a narrow religiosity rather than a broad and inclusive spirituality…

Do you see the essence of your work as the art of listening, the act of compassion then?

It is very much so – the art of listening. Theologian Paul Tillich said – “the first duty of love is to listen.”  That, in itself, is very healing. To be in the presence of someone who is not in a hurry – not waiting to jump in with their own story, but simply to listen and receive your story, is very affirming. When another human being listens to it and receives that story, no matter how tragic or harrowing, the listening in some measure heals some of the trauma and grief. It provides solace to the sorrowing. Someone else is now carrying that story with you and you are not alone any more. It is profoundly healing. It was for me.  My first practicum made room for me to share my story with my supervisor. That was a game changer for me, and helped me to see that I wanted to do that for others.

People judge themselves so harshly – self recrimination, regret, self criticism. Sometimes they have never shared these things with anyone but have carried them deep in their heart for many years. Perhaps they have hurt another human being and have not forgiven themselves. And then to be able to share that “shadow side” with someone and have that person accept them and not reject them gives them permission to forgive themselves.  The darkness in our life does not obliterate the light.

Do you feel our thinking plays a part in our health?

Yes, I think it does. The stories we tell about ourselves and that we make up about others do shape us.  This is where cognitive behavioural therapy and narrative based therapies often help.  Our stories also generate powerful emotions, which affect our sense of well-being. It is amazing what listening will do – it can open up a person to themselves, so they can see  a blind spot or become aware of how bitterness or resentment is has been eating away at them.

Some people don’t get touched much. How would that feel – the loneliness. We maybe don’t see the needs of others to be touched with love

I recently attended a workshop on “Challenging Conversations” in residential care – one of which is the issue of sexuality.  The presenter related the following story on how in one facility a resident living with dementia was engaging in inappropriate behaviour with caregivers.  An astute care provider wondered if what this man needed was touch. So he began to give this resident regular hugs, and the inappropriate behaviour stopped. There is always meaning behind the behaviour – and we need to constantly ask ourselves what could be the meaning that we have not yet discovered? If we are not reflective, we risk jumping to conclusions and perhaps unnecessary medical interventions rather than pausing to reflect and see the human need behind the behaviour.

What do you feel is at the heart of your work?

Relationships! It’s a corny saying but they do make the world go round. We are made for relationships – with others within our own human family, but also with animals, with nature, and of course with the mystery of our own being. That is what spiritual care is all about!

It is in the small things that we see spiritual care.  I love what Lorraine Moffit, a researcher in the U.K. says,

“Within a holistic care model it is important to see that the meeting of physical needs such as bathing and sharing meals has a spiritual aspect that is capable also of ministering to the deep needs of residents if the practice is truly loving and affirming.”

I am developing an in-service for nursing staff on how to infuse their practice with spiritual care. It’s not necessarily about adding yet more tasks to their work but doing what they do with a spirit of compassion and mindfulness. Most of the work and research in spiritual care in the last couple of decades has been within the nursing profession, so that is where the frontier is.

Maybe that is how it goes mainstream.

Increasing numbers of health professionals are recognizing the need to incorporate a more compassionate aspect to their work. What Vida’s thoughtful comments point to is not just the necessity for compassion in our healthcare settings, but also the need to view health from a more spiritual perspective.
* You can follow Vida on Twitter at @Vida_SpCare . If you are interested in finding our more about Spiritual Health providers , you can link to the  Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) website at http://www.spiritualcare.ca/

This article was published August 6 2013  in the Vancouver Sun HERE