Cultural Anthropologist, Robert Orsi explains that human beings are perpetually caught up in the daily pursuit of cultural creation which periodically gets disrupted by certain occurrences known as cultural "hot spots"--events that do not fit neatly into daily life such as death, pain, sickness, social upheaval, transition, economic catastrophe, etc. These incidences produce feelings of vulnerability in people, which activate religious beliefs that manifest in religious practices to express what matters most in their world. (Orsi 1993:3)
I have been pondering this notion of cultural "hot spots" such as sickness, pain and death and writing a paper exploring how religion in the public sphere affects the elderly, the volunteers and care-givers at Baycrest and if and how does this serve the public good.
My volunteer activities at Baycrest involve three different activities: 1) serving brunch to 150 holocaust survivors; 2) assisting at the Oneg Shabbat services for infirm hospital clients and, 3) escorting two elderly Jewish women to the Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Every Friday, I escort two elderly women (one of whom is 87 years old) from the fifth floor to the ground floor for the Kabbalat Shabbat. Both of these women are talkative--sharing with me stories about their families and past. Although both women suffer from early dementia, they appear cognitive of their surroundings and why they are going the Sabbath service. This is further demonstrated by their singing various well known Shabbat songs and participating in the candle lighting ceremony to welcome in the Sabbath. I have witnessed similar results at the Oneg Shabbat service, although the results are more subdued with the infirm clients.
Studies have shown that there is a higher rate of psychological dysfunction among non-religious persons versus a lower rate of impairment for religious individuals. A partial explanation of these results may lie in the notion that engaging in community religious activities demands higher levels of social skills and psychological functioning, thus a healthier mind, whereas, psychologically impaired persons are less likely to attend religious services or other social organizations. Furthermore, studies of elderly individuals over the age of 65 show a positive relationship between religion and psychological health (Lea 1982:339). Moreover, many patients desire a more holistic approach to health care that is spiritually sensitive (Pearce 2005:82).
As the baby boomer generation continue to age, our health care system comes under increasing pressure to find effective, creative, and less costly means of preventing illness and pro care. Baycrest has approximately 6,000 volunteers offering their expertise, skills, talents and companionship to brighten the lives of their clients. Several of the volunteers I work with at the Oneg Shabbat are Jewish seniors, most of whom are in the late 70's or early 80's and have logged thousands of hours of volunteer work. They are intelligent, physically active, happy and enjoy being of service to others.
Studies show that caregivers report religious involvement and religious coping strategies have improved their mood, care giving experience and spiritual well being. Furthermore, studies suggest that religious coping may provide an important resource for health care workers who supervise and support adaptive coping among caregivers. (Pearce 2005:82).
Overall, observational and descriptive investigation suggests a positive outcome for the application of religion in health care, but further research into the bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach is needed. Questions I wish to explore, include: How effective are religious coping strategies and how can we measure the positive benefits for both patients and caregivers? Which strategies empirically and practically address patient and caregiver spiritual issues and needs? What religious coping methods are helpful and which are harmful? These are but a few of the questions I hope to answer in my paper.
Lea, Gary., Religion, Mental Health, and Clinical Issues. Journal of Religion and Health. Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter, 1982) pp. 336-351
Orsi, Robert A., George Marsden, David W. Wills and Colleen McDannell, Forum: The Decade Ahead in Scholarship, Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Religion and American Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 1-28
Pearce, Michelle J., A Critical Review of the Forms and Value of Religious Coping among Informal Caregivers. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 81-118