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19 Aug 2019

Creating a more spiritual path on the journey of ageing

Creating a more spiritual path on the journey of ageing  

Life, and therefore ageing, is comparable to a journey. Fundamentally, one we make on our own. Yet gaining insights from other people, cultures and even different times can make the process smoother and more engaging.

Ageing in not just a biological process — it is also very much a cultural one. The array of influences involved can have a bearing especially in places and spaces, where older people are venerated and treasured. Alternatively, in some cases, not.

Different cultures have their own attitudes and practices around ageing and including death. These have a huge impact on individual’s experiences of getting older. This is true of many Asian, Pacific, some European and even Native American culture. Some talk of the spirit world as being part of the afterlife. In reality, spiritual connections can be an important link to the present. Insights from other people, and times, can help define, and refine, your own orientation. Learning from people who have accumulated insight and experience, also known as wisdom, can be anything from merely interesting to significantly life changing.  

The power of spiritual influences

As people become more open minded to meaningful influences regardless of origin, cross cultural offerings can be ‘borrowed’ to add to one’s own repertoire of techniques, or thinking, aligned with ageing well. If nothing else, experiencing and exposing oneself to different ways of life and thought patterns can be a journey in itself.

Evidence supports the notion that people are not necessarily moving out of their comfort zone in embracing new and enriching experiences over more ascribed or traditional practices. Not that these are abandoned, rather they are undergoing a process of reflection and re-evaluation. In many Western cultures, including this country, those identifying themselves as being spiritual but not religious is rising.

New Zealand is fortunate to have the rich traditions of Maori and Pacific Island cultures that value the input, and importance, of older people. They have an acceptance of how spirituality is a natural and important part of life. Along with these spheres of influence, New Zealand is now home to over 213 different ethnic groups with worldviews that will further enrich ageing and wellbeing.

Practical pathways to wellbeing

The Selwyn Institute, in association with the University of Auckland and Mercy Hospice, recently hosted a series of presentations by Professor Holly Nelson-Becker. She is an acknowledged expert in social gerontology and a Hartford Faculty Scholar in Geriatric Social Work.

Her work includes investigating the pathways to resilience and well-being in older adults. She has explored spirituality, end-of-life, and diverse cultural expressions related to social care including loss, grief and the quality of dying.


Her definitive work, Spirituality, Religion and Aging, published in 2017, is an in-depth analysis of various theories, narratives, faiths, religions and their characteristics and practical implications for those who are ageing.

“Since we live in a world that includes many religious as well as non-religious spiritual beliefs translated through culture, we need to discern the information that may be valuable to better serve client needs. To what essential information might we be blind through our unexamined biases and how can we prepare ourselves to be resources in the difficult moments when suffering and pain are present,” she states.

Adding to the picture, speakers from Aotearoa New Zealand shared local perspectives of Hauora/Wellbeing, Wairua/Spirituality and End of Life Preparation. With a view of how these constructs, connect with other worldviews or beliefs.  

A growing number of academics and professionals in Aotearoa/New Zealand have actively explored, and established, the connection these have to the country’s spiritual influences. These have included research, knowledge and information sharing, thought leadership, issue management and development of policy parameters.

While New Zealand has the opportunity to learn from others’ the country already has acknowledged spirituality as part of integrated health and well-being regimens in some areas. Māori, Pacific and many religious NGOs implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, acknowledge and operationalize spirituality in their work.

There is an ever-increasing number of ‘dots’ that exist that over time can be connected. Developing national guidelines focused on spirituality is one part of the agenda that is gaining momentum. The visit by Professor Holly Nelson-Becker advances the cause.

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