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March 27, 2012

Caring for the elderly: a Muslim view

Reuel S. Amdur

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Shahina Siddiqui, Executive Director of the Islamic Social Services Association, was in Ottawa in February to address meetings with local Muslims and the Ottawa Council on Aging. She began before the Council with an illustrated slide with the caption, "Age is important only if you're a cheese."

Healthy aging, she explained, is based on healthy spirituality, which provides help in healing.  As she held, spirituality is “connection with the Higher.”  It is more general and more inclusive than religion.  Religion provides a specific expression of spirituality.

According to Siddiqui, healthy spirituality is based on hope, mercy, and acceptance.  It includes self-care, care for others, and care for the community.  It empowers and encourages positive attitudes, nourishes healthy perspectives, and discourages negative thought patterns.

By contrast, unhealthy spirituality can exacerbate physical and mental ailments, for example with depression accompanied by chronic pain or fatigue and grief.

It has been noted that medicine is both a science and an art.  God is the ultimate healer, and the perfection of the medical profession is reached in seeing “God’s compassionate manifestations in the vast natural pharmacy of mother earth.”  She cited Fethullah Gulen, who held that “the perfection of medicine is fulfilled with prayer, because prayer allows the patient to become an active member of the medical team.”

“Everyone,” said Siddiqui, “needs spiritual care whether religious or not.”  Furthermore, “Healthy spiritual care recognizes diversity, respects it and honors it.  It treats all as equals and does not compel conformity or uniformity.”  The caregiver providing healthy spiritual care is comfortable with his own spiritual concepts and is not threatened by differences.

On the other hand, the caregiver violates the spiritual integrity of the patient if there is the imposition of religious rituals or if the threat of Hell and damnation is raised.  The caregiver needs to be nonjudgmental and should not try to force his opinion.  Out as well are argumentation, proselytizing, ridiculing others’ beliefs, and dismissiveness.

According to Nazila Isgandarova, writing in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, “Islam regards both health and illness to emanate from God, closely linking the art of healing to worship.  The one who practices the art of healing does so for the sake of God’s pleasure.  In this context, both provider and recipient become united through a spiritual bond.”  Beyond that, effective spiritual care is there for the whole team, physician, institutions, caregiver, family, and community.

Siddiqui identified what helps the spirit.  “Humor nourishes the spirit.  A smile lifts the spirit.  Laughter heals.”  As well, pleasant company plays its role.  A positive attitude is consoling.  Prayer is relaxing and quiet reflection energizing. 

She gave this advice to all: “Build your own spiritual reserve.”  Pray.  Have a shoulder to lean on.  Engage in a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating.  Have a support network.  Know why you want to do a thing and why you do it.

In caring for the aging, she posed these principles:

–Maintain the individual’s dignity.

–Rely on spiritual strength.

–Allow for spiritual expressions.

– Do not dodge the “Why” questions.

“You don’t have a soul, “ said C.S. Lewis.  “You are a soul.  You have a body.”

Siddiqui cited the well-loved Sufi poet Rumi on caring:

Let us fall in love again

And scatter gold dust all over the world.

Let us become a new spring

And feel the breezes drift in the heaven’s scent,

Let the grace from within sustain us.

Let us carve gems out of our stony hearts

And let them light our path of Love.

The glance of love is crystal clear.

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