Research findings were also presented indicating that programmes such as “mindfulness”, stemming from meditation practices, reduced anxiety in cancer patients in hospitals and hospices internationally.
There were calls for similar programmes to be introduced in elderly care homes here.
President Mary McAleese sent a message of support to the conference in Killarney, organised by directors of the spiritual education programme at the Dzogchen Beara retreat centre in Allihies in west Cork, part of an international network of spiritual care founded on Tibetan Buddhist principles.
The conference was attended by more than 500 healthcare professionals, including GPs, nurses and social workers, as well as chaplains, nuns and priests, and drawn from Japan, the US, Australia and Saudi Arabia as well as Ireland.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, who led a personal meditation, said such a conference would not have been possible even five years ago as the country was now realising there was more to life than materialism, and there was a growing recognition of the need to cater for the spiritual needs of people.
The importance of emotional and spiritual counselling for cancer patients was recognised by the Laffoy report in 1999, when for the first time cancer patients were asked about their needs, according to Ursula Bates, the principal clinical psychologist at the Blackrock Hospice in Dublin who is also attached to the palliative care service at St Vincent’s University Hospital.
Presenting research carried out on cancer patients, she said that while cognitive therapy went some way towards reducing fear and depression, “mindfulness” meditation programmes, which gave a feeling of spiritual support, significantly reduced both depression and anxiety, and improved quality of life.
Hospices had such programmes but nursing homes for the elderly in Ireland were “starved of this kind of intervention”, Ms Bates said.
A spiritual needs assessment of patients should accompany care notes, Ms Bates said, but she also cautioned against assigning spiritual care solely to professional psychologists – spiritual strength and conversations about spiritual matters existed at all levels for patients, from the tea lady to hospital porter and should be recognised and encouraged.
Ms Bates said Irish people came from a deeply religious tradition, and she referred to monastic books of the dying, known as customaries, kept in Irish monasteries. This care had been brought into hospitals particularly by nuns, who worked anonymously, she said to a round of applause from the international conference.
“They are passing on the burden to us and passing it on with tremendous generosity,” Ms Bates said.
There was also discussion about the removal of Catholic religious objects from hospitals with delegates saying that a better solution might be to leave the objects but to include other traditions as well.
Christine Whiteside, leader of the team that offers spiritual support and friendship to guests of the Dzogchen Beara centre who face terminal illness or bereavement, said mindfulness which aimed at focusing the mind was “a human practice crossing religious boundaries”.
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