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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Spiritual Care Series reaches Plus magazine audience

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Prof John Swinton, Presenter of the Spiritual Care Series

The Spiritual Care Series is featured in the winter edition of Plus – the magazine of Christians on Ageing.
With the editor Joanna Walker’s kind permission, we reproduce Eley McAinsh’s article that’s in the current magazine telling more people about the new series changing people’s perception of pastoral care in later life.


A groundbreaking course to equip churches and communities to offer excellent spiritual care to older people

‘This is such an exciting tool for equipping the church and caring for older people in a way that other mainstream, national, organisations cannot do.’ – Tricia Williams, author of God’s not forgotten me: Experiencing Faith in Dementia.

Developed in Australia by Health TV Network, The Spiritual Care Series offers tried-and-tested training designed to give ministers, chaplains, family members, friends and carers the confidence, understanding and skills to provide sensitive, effective spiritual support to older people, at home, in churches, in care homes and in the wider community.

Professor John Swinton, Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen and distinguished author of Living in the Memories of God and Finding Jesus in the Storm has been involved in developing the eight-session series and accompanying resources. He is a leading, highly respected figure in the field and grounds the content for a UK audience.

BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy pioneer, Debbie Thrower, first came across Health TV Network in Australia and then found two groups, one in Alton, Hampshire and the other in the north-east, who were using the course and recommended it warmly.

The Anna Chaplaincy team set about trialling the course with a group of care industry professionals from across the UK. They soon became so convinced of its potential to transform the spiritual care of older people that negotiations began for BRF to distribute the course in the UK, leading to a launch event in September with John Swinton as the keynote speaker. Introducing him, Debbie Thrower asked how he felt the course might change perceptions of older people, to which he replied:

‘One of the things this course does is give us a language to articulate what it means to get old and to age well. In a culture where ageing is oftentimes looked upon as a negative, the spiritual care course tries to say, no, it's not negative. There are good things in here. If we can just get the right frame on things, then we can live well even in difficult circumstances.

‘It’s interesting,’ he continues, ‘that within the Bible, there's no word for health understood as the absence of illness. The closest word for health is the term shalom, which at heart means justice, righteousness, holiness. To be healthy, is to be in right relationship with God. So you can be at the end of your life, and be really healthy. You can be dying in a hospice, and be really healthy. You can be a very powerful athlete, and be really unhealthy. To be healthy, in that Biblical sense, is to be in a situation that no matter where you are, people around you help you to hold on to God.’

Debbie Ducille, from the Anna Chaplaincy staff team, believes that part of the appeal of the course is that it’s ‘deceptively simple’: ‘You think the content builds slowly in small basic sections, but actually the concepts and learning offered stay with you. I’m still thinking about some of the principles and observations, weeks later.

‘It offers a really thorough, accessible, well-paced and thoughtful introduction to considering spiritual care in later life and it has given me a completely new, encouraging perspective on what the ageing process might be like personally.’

Course participants in Harborne, Birmingham

The course consists of eight two-and-a-half-hour sessions with video material to introduce each topic and provoke discussion. It covers a range of essential skills, including reflective listening, and uses a mixture of learning styles. It can be run in person or entirely online, and a certificate is awarded to participants on successful completion. Including ‘homework’ the time commitment is about four hours a week.

The eight sessions cover:

1. Understanding the ageing process

2. Spirituality in ageing

3. Good communication

4. The power of storytelling

5. Dementia

6. A new home and a new way of life

7. Grief, loss, death and dying

8. Roles, boundaries and self-care

Maureen O’Neill, Director of the independent Edinburgh-based charity Faith in Older People, was part of the online pilot group:

‘What’s really good is the range of resources,’ she says, ‘You have things to read, things to respond to and, as part of the videos, round table discussions with John Swinton which are very effective. The course doesn't use overly academic language, which I think is really important if you’re going to get spiritual care out to a wider audience. The materials, and the way it's presented, are superb. The resources could be easily revisited many times and I think the question is, how do we share it? How do we share such a strong, strong resource?’

Anna Chaplaincy training and development lead, Julia Burton-Jones facilitated the pilot group. She agrees about its accessibility:

‘You don't have to have any kind of background or professional experience in the fields of ageing and dementia; you could actually have people who were interested from their own personal point of view, or because they've got family members who are older. We agreed in the pilot that we might need to tweak the material slightly or be a little bit selective if we were delivering it in a care home because it is quite Christian in its emphasis… it's designed for churches. So, while I think it would be really excellent for people working in care, it would have to be explained that while it does have multifaith aspects to the content, it is produced from a Christian point of view. People would need to understand that, but having said that, I think they would learn a huge amount.’

John Swinton also believes the course ‘is pretty much for anybody’.

‘I mean,’ he explains, ‘the area of spirituality is something that all of us engage with; all of us have needs for relationships, purpose, meaning and hope and all of these things. So at that level it’s something that speaks to all of us, but really, it's for congregations and communities who want to do spiritual care well; they have people in the congregation who may have a diversity of needs, and they really want to care well for them. What the course aims to do is to create a framework for understanding within which new ways of practising, new ways of caring can come to the surface, and can enable us to care well, for body, mind and spirit.’

One of John’s key concerns is to give value to the experience of those living with dementia, which can be difficult in a culture and society which defines – and often dismisses – people on grounds of cognitive ability. ‘I want you to have this at the back of your mind,’ he says, ‘dementia changes relationships, but it doesn't end them. That's very, very important to hold on to because culturally, we oftentimes think if you have dementia, you don't want to relate anymore or you're not the person you were before. I want to say to you that’s just nonsense.’ And to make his point, he talked about Beatrice:

‘One of my colleagues, who is a chaplain who works with people who live with dementia, told me this lovely story about Beatrice. Beatrice had advanced dementia and she was very unresponsive. but one day my colleague said to Beatrice, ‘I'm going to pray with you.’ And so my friend began by saying ‘Our Father…’, and immediately Beatrice began to pray. And she prayed, and she prayed and prayed and prayed. Eventually, my friend said, ‘In the name of the Father…’, and Beatrice stopped. Afterwards, she told me: ‘It's funny. I was listening to Beatrice's prayers. I couldn't understand them but they were real. It’s not often we think about people with dementia as prayer warriors, but when Beatrice prays, God hears her prayers and something changes within the society and within God's creation.’

So with these things in mind, the spiritual care series is intended to help us to see the world differently, to get these questions into the forefront of the mind, to be able to care for the body, mind and spirit, but also to be able to be present with one another in difficult circumstances and in good circumstances. The intention is that in the end, we'll see one another differently.


The Spiritual Care Series comes as a package for two facilitators and six participants. The cost of £360.00 (£60.00 per person) covers one DVD, two facilitators handbooks, six participants handbooks, access to The Bridge online learning environment and certification on successful completion. Additional participants can be added for £60.00 per additional person.

On the same page, you will find a tab to click and watch the online briefing event, including John Swinton’s address (which begins ten minutes into the recording).

Eley McAinsh

Communications officer BRF




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