Cultivate a life-long thriving spiritual life

Sr. Nancy Kehoe

Sr. Nancy Kehoe

April 30, 2012

CAMROSE – Until Dr. Nancy Kehoe came on the scene, few people had thought to ask mental health patients about their spiritual lives. Nor had they done well asking aging residents in care facilities about their ongoing spirituality.

A dimension of their health and well-being was being overlooked.

Thriving at any age, should be the ultimate goal of caregivers, for themselves, as well as for those in their care.

Speaking at the Alberta Pastoral Care Association (APCA) annual conference, April 16-17, Kehoe, a mental health professional, is a prime example of what she advocates.

The 74-year-old is vibrant and alive, living her life to the full as a speaker, author and consultant in the mental health field. A member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, she is the director of Expanding Connections, and an instructor in psychology at Cambridge Health Alliance, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

She took her own advice on thriving, rather than just surviving, to be where she is today. After 25 years in private practice, she was prompted to make changes in her life because, as her aging mother had observed, she wasn't happy.

Kehoe gave up her private counselling practice and moved into consulting. Through her groundbreaking work addressing the spiritual needs of those with mental illness, she became a pioneer in mental health, promoting the role of spiritual health through all stages of life.

She told the nearly 100 participants at the APCA conference that thriving is a psychological state in which an individual experiences both a sense of vitality and a sense of learning.

"Thriving shouldn't be mistaken for flourishing or surviving," she said.

"Flourishing means having growth, blossoming and growing luxuriantly, but there is no learning. Surviving means remaining alive or in existence, but no real vitality or growth is evident."

Self-care of the caregivers is an important element in establishing a caregiving environment that promotes thriving for all concerned.


"Anyone in a position of giving care to someone else needs to be aware of the need to care for themself. Caregiving is stressful and hard work, both physically and emotionally."

Some of the stressors caregivers cope with include not knowing their own limits and being unable to say "no." Stress can lead to burnout, which means not paying attention to what is needed, personally, to thrive. There needs to be a balance between self-care and the expectations and demands of the job.

"People do better if they are happy and energized."

In the workplace, she says more attention needs to be given to faith development and spiritual well-being of staff.

"Remember who is number one. When you board a plane, the instructions are to put on your own oxygen mask first, then help the one who depends on you.

"How do we help those we work with to thrive if we are barely surviving?"

Kehoe made several suggestions for improving spiritual care in the workplace, including setting up meditation rooms or quiet space, and providing opportunities for staff prayer groups to meet 20 minutes before work begins to pray about the work of the day.


In most health care facilities for the aging, she said, the emphasis of care is primarily on surviving. Programs and services often fail to instill a vitality and ongoing excitement about learning and growing in the aging residents. Keeping a person alive is not the same as facilitating thriving and enjoyment of life.

"Whatever stage a person is at, there needs to be an energy, a vitality, involved and opportunities for learning something new."

Kehoe developed a religious and spiritual history assessment tool to help caregivers ask about a person's spiritual or religious history.

It is a way to open up the conversation beyond asking if they have a religious or denominational preference, and then moving on to the next question.

People continue to be spiritual beings, whatever age or stage they are at, and providing spiritual care must be attended to, as part of the goal of continuing to thrive, until the end of life.