“A sense of something greater”

Dr Fiona Gardner examines the role of spirituality in healthcare

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Social work practitioner and academic, Dr Fiona Gardner, specialises in spirituality. “For me, spirituality is that sense of something greater, transcendent,” she said. “It’s that feeling people might get when they walk in a beautiful forest, or on a beach, in relationships, or even in hobbies like gardening.”

I asked Dr Gardner about her path, and how spirituality can transform our provision of education and healthcare.

I grew up in Scotland. My family were Presbyterian. My mother was critical of religious institutions, while my father loved all the community aspects of church life. I was exposed to a very healthy mix of attitudes and saw spirituality as an intensely personal and subjective experience. I became a social work practitioner in prisons and, later, in the Department of Community Services. I started teaching social work at La Trobe in the 1990s, and spirituality came up when students analysed their own values and assumptions. Some felt very embarrassed about discussing their religious background. Once, we were taught never to discuss religion, sex or politics. Now we talk about sex and politics, but religion is still off limits, despite it being an important part of our culture.

It is important that our social work graduates understand their own values as well as respecting, and engaging with, the values of others. I developed a model, a way of talking about spirituality that allows students and professionals to understand their beliefs in relation to history and social context. My mother’s family was part-Irish. When she talked about history, politics and religion were inseparable. So when we analyse who we are, we have to move beyond family and community and look at broader influences; the messages we are getting from society and the media, and what assumptions we are making as a result of all this. It comes down to talking about what’s meaningful, where these ideas come from, and how a new understanding might change our interaction with others. Professions that focus on working with people need this understanding so that they can work in a more holistic way. My focus is on identifying ways of starting that conversation.

My research reflects this framework of critical spirituality, including exploring the experiences of patients and families in the hospital setting. In a recent study, we interviewed 24 patients and 10 family members to explore the value of spiritual care. The results were consistent. Spiritual care – which could be anything from participating in religious practices, to music, pet therapy or contact with nature – gave patients a sense of renewal. They relished the opportunity to talk about what mattered to them and what nurtured their sense of self. The study confirmed that spirituality is an integral part of people’s lives and is integral to holistic care. It’s not about imposing beliefs on others but being aware of them so that together we can bring another kind of richness to Australian healthcare.

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