Dr. Carlin Miller leads the audience through a “starfish” relaxing exercise to deal with stress or anger. It involves holding out your right hand and spreading the fingers in a starfish pattern. With the index finger of your other hand, you then trace each finger, inhaling as you trace up one side of the finger and exhaling as you trace down the other side, repeating for all fingers. Photo courtesy Maciah Telfer, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare

Conference takes healthy approach to aging

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • June 21, 2017

WINDSOR, Ont. – Throw out a lot of your preconceptions when it comes to the aging process and coping with death and dying, a conference on healthy aging and spirituality was told.

Several themes emerged from the event held June 14, organized jointly by Assumption University and Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, including: You don’t have to be a professional caregiver to provide substantive support to the infirm, caregivers can learn from the people they care for, and spirituality — in its widest sense — is instrumental for understanding age and transcending trauma.

Dr. Carlin Miller, associate professor of psychology at the University of Windsor, told the audience caregivers shouldn’t be quick to intervene with those who are having difficulty aging, whether this be dealing with life changes or stereotypes of how they are perceived.

“Aging well requires that we support adults in making their own decisions,” Miller said. “We provide opportunities to promote coping.”

One method is by building resiliency, the idea that “there are risk factors, there are problems, there are challenges and people are able to flourish anyway,” she said.

Miller said resilience can be achieved through spirituality.

“So it may be a faith that teaches us that God is with us at all times, that God supports us and loves us and offers resources for us, and if we trust in God then we’ll be able to conquer the challenges we face,” she said.

But there are other methods, everything from feeling emotionally nurtured by the love of family to finding fulfillment in daily routines like exercise and dieting.

And, instead of talking down or assuming they know best what the aged person needs, Miller said caregivers should mirror their clients’ routines and moods. “Engage with what they want in a way that is meaningful for them.”

Michelle O’Rourke, an Assumption University graduate and ER nurse with a background in parish ministry, told one session that caregivers should approach the client, patient or “care partner” on an equal footing.

“It’s not something that should be about power — ‘I’m strong and you’re weak and I have something that you need,’ ” she said. “But if we can look at caring as a mutual relationship we can break through to a different place.”

O’Rourke, author of two books on approaching the concept of death and who is program coordinator at the Chatham-Kent (Ont.) Hospice, also said novice caregivers shouldn’t be intimidated by someone in trauma or at the end of life.

“The most important thing that we can do is to accompany them, to be present with them, not to try to fix things, not to try to change things, but to be in there suffering with them,” she said. “And usually through the conversation the person (client) comes to their own understanding of what the answers are to the questions that they’re seeking.”

She said the Catholic faith ideally sets someone up for caregiving. “We are called to this out of our baptism. All of us are called into this ministry of care, the companionship of being together.”

Conference attendees were also given a practical lesson on preparing for the end of life.

Maria Giannotti, a local bioethicist, educator and health care consultant, called for people at any adult age to undertake so-called Advance Care Planning.

She said that over her more than two decades working in hospitals, she has seen numerous patients forego such planning, which includes choosing what’s known as a Substitute Decision Maker (SDM). Should the patient become mentally incapacitated and not able to make their own decisions, the SDM can do that for them, including decisions over fundamental issues like medications, surgery or admission to long-term care.

“The process isn’t difficult at all,” she said. “It’s choosing somebody you trust to make a decision and then telling them what you really want. But because we’re a society that is death phobic, we tend to avoid that whole conversation.”

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