Seniors say they hesitate to mix healthcare and matters of faith

Published in RINewsToday on December 26, 2022

When it comes to matters of one’s personal beliefs, most seniors choose to keep their health care and their spiritual or religious lives separate, a new University of Michigan poll finds. But they do see a role for their health care providers in assisting them to cope with illness by looking for meaning or hope.

The National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI) and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

For this new NPHA report, the poll team worked with Adam Marks, M.D., M.P.H., a hospice and palliative care physician at Michigan Medicine, and L.J. Brazier, M.Div., a chaplain at Michigan Medicine’s Department of Spiritual Care.

The poll report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for IHPI and administered online and via phone in July 2022 among 2,163 adults, aged 50 to 80. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect the U.S. population. 

Religious and Spiritual Beliefs and Health Care Decisions

According to new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA), released on Dec. 12, 84% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 say that they have religious and/or spiritual beliefs that are somewhat, or very important to them, including 71% who cited religious beliefs and 80% who cited spiritual beliefs.  About 40% of these older adults say those beliefs have gotten more important to them as they grow older. 

NPHA’s poll findings indicate that women were more likely than men (63% vs. 46%) to report that religious or spiritual believes were important, as those living in the South and Midwest (61% and 59%) compared to those in the West and Northeast (51% and 43%).

In addition, the researchers found that older adults with lower levels of education were also more likely to report religious and spiritual believes as being very important (61% high school or less, 56% some college, 47% bachelor’s degree or higher), as were those with annual household incomes less than $100,000 compared to those with $100,000 or more (59% vs. 43%).

Among older adults with religious or spiritual beliefs that are important to them, 19% say their beliefs have influenced their health care decisions, and 28% say they want health care providers to ask them about their beliefs, note the researchers.

Meanwhile, 77% of all older adults, regardless of beliefs, say health care providers should keep their own personal beliefs separate from how they deliver care.

“While 45% of older adults say their religious beliefs are very important to them, and 50% say that about their spiritual beliefs, even this group largely wants to keep this aspect of their lives separate from their health care,” says Marks, an associate professor of geriatric and palliative medicine, in a Dec. 12 statement announcing the poll’s findings.

“But a sizable majority of all older adults – whether or not they say belief is important to them – reported that they’d turn to health care workers to help them find deeper meaning in their illness, and 78% believe health care workers will help them find hope when they’re having a health-related challenge,” he adds.

According to Brazier, many health care systems have a way to record the religious affiliation of patients in their electronic medical records, and that medical students and others training for health professions are told to ask their patients about any beliefs that might affect their future care.  Having this information available can help providers ensure that patients with strongly held beliefs or specific religious affiliations receive everything from appropriate hospital food to visits with chaplains of a specific faith tradition when they’re having a health crisis or nearing the end of life. 

But for those who do not follow a faith tradition or have strongly held beliefs, having that information available to health providers can also be helpful, says Brazier.

“Being a religious or spiritual person, or not following a faith tradition or spiritual practices, is a highly personal matter,” notes poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. “So perhaps it’s not surprising that only about a quarter of all people in this age range say they’ve talked about their beliefs with a health care provider, though this rose to about one-third of those who say their religious or spiritual beliefs are very important to them.”  In all, 70% of those who say their beliefs are somewhat or very important to them reported feeling comfortable discussing their beliefs with their health care providers, he says.

Researchers say that even if patients don’t want to discuss their beliefs with their health providers at a typical appointment, it’s important for providers to know if patients with significant health needs, or those experiencing a health crisis, are connected to a faith community that can help provide support. 

In all, 65% of the older adults whose religious or spiritual beliefs are important to them said they belong to a community of people who share their beliefs. 

My Say…

Kathryne Fassbender, Founder and Executive Director of the Hem of Christ: A Dementia Care Ministry, notes that she has never met anyone in her 15 years of work in the field of aging who has wanted to keep their health care and spiritual/religious life separate as the NPHA study states. “What I have found is hesitancy to bring up faith with health care professionals both in physical and mental health care,” she says.

“As Catholics, our health care is woven into how we live our faith, and we wish to have the care we receive be in line with the teachings of the Church. In all honesty, it is increasingly difficult to find doctors who will respect that wish, which opens up a much broader topic of discussion,” she notes. “This hesitancy is across generations, so even care partners for older adults are not always as forthcoming with information regarding faith and health for fear of losing a current healthcare team,” Fassbender observes.

“While the number of doctors who would dismiss someone as a patient because of one’s wishes to keep with the teachings of the Catholic faith in the care they receive is small, the fear is there and it does happen,” says Fassbender, noting that the current medical and social landscape magnifies this fear. “The hostility toward religion and in particular the Catholic Church has a greater impact than I think we understand sometimes,” she warns.

Fassbender says that while it can be helpful to know the personal beliefs of our care providers, it is more important that the doctor, nurse, and therapist, respect our faith. “I know some great care providers who are deeply atheist, yet when they work with their clients of deep faith, they don’t allow their personal beliefs to influence care in any way. They instead assist their client in living out their faith traditions,” she says, stressing that this is what we all seek.

“While I may question some of the findings of this research, I see the findings as a call for care providers to increase seeking to help people of all ages, and all beliefs to live their purpose until their final breath,” says Fassbender.

Fassbender adds: “We must never dismiss one’s faith, regardless of their physical or neuro-cognitive abilities, and most certainly one’s age. I see this study as an invitation to crack open this conversation and allow the hostility, misunderstandings, and fears regarding faith and health to be overcome by the pursuit of care for the human person, fully who they are, what they seek, and how they wish to live life until the final breath.”  

The Hem of Christ started when the time was taken to pause and hear that still, small voice. After years of witnessing how a person’s faith can be diminished simply because of a dementia diagnosis or because someone put their life on hold to care for a loved one, Kate decided that it was time to formalize the small ministry work she had been doing for almost a decade.  Kate answered the call to formalize and set a path for others to walk down, reaching for the hem of Christ. 

NPHA Poll Puts Spotlight on Health Care and Aging Issues

The National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) is a recurring, nationally representative household survey. By understanding the perspectives of older adults, the NPHA provides information to the public, health care providers, policymakers, and aging advocates on issues related to health, health care and health policy affecting U.S. adults ages 50 to 80 and their families.

Launched in spring 2017, the NPHA grew out of a strong interest in aging-related issues among members of the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI) bringing together more than 600 faculty members  who study health, health care and the impacts of health policy. In addition to IHPI, the poll receives support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, AARP and U-M’s academic medical center.

The NPHA results can put a spotlight on future research needs and to create an informed national dialogue on poll issues examined. 

Butterflies Bring Comfort in Time of Grieving

Published in the Pawtucket Times on February 18, 2019

Susan feels “joy in her heart and complete happiness” whenever she sees a butterfly. A butterfly came into her life as she mourned her brother’s death in 1990. Before he died, she remembers her brother saying that he would come back as a butterfly. The 62-year-old Pawtucket resident says “he meant it” and she believes he has sent messages to her through butterflies each year for over 30 years.

She believes that butterflies that play in the garden during the late spring and summer every year could possibly be other family members (deceased husband and father) and friends that have since departed. “Most of them knew the story of the butterfly and perhaps they too wished to come back as a beautiful butterfly. I know I would love to come back as a beautiful butterfly if I had the chance,” she says.

Significance of Butterflies Brings Sign from Beyond

Looking back, Susan remembers meeting her future husband, Stephen, after the death of her first husband. She was introduced to him by her close friend, Jackie. As the three dined at an outdoor restaurant in Tiverton, Jackie quickly pointed at a beautiful monarch butterfly sitting on a purple butterfly bush not far from their table. As they gazed at the lovely sight, a text message came into Susan’s cell phone from her next-door neighbor who had sent a photo of a monarch butterfly sitting on a purple butterfly bush in Susan’s backyard in Pawtucket. Both sightings of the monarch butterfly were at the same time of day, both directed to Susan- one in Pawtucket and one in Tiverton.

“I knew what was happening here. My brother, maybe my husband and my Dad (both deceased) were telling me that Stephen is the man for me. That’s why I married him! Well, besides he’s a good man too,” said Susan.

Like Susan, Phyllis Calvey,68, a writer, speaker, educator, and storyteller, sees the significance of the butterfly and how it can bring comfort in one’s darkest hours after the death of a loved one. “It’s a book that people can pass onto someone they know who has lost a loved one,” she says.

In “The Butterfly Club: “Is That You?”’ the Bellingham, Massachusetts writer shares her inspirational true-life stories of how God can, and does, use signs to communicate His presence to “those in need.”

“My book has brought comfort to many who had not yet found the closure they were hoping for. And still, for some, the age-old question persists, “Was it a sign or just a coincidence?” Their underlying need bleeds through – I need more proof! I believe I have found “more proof” in the Butterfly Phenomenon,” she says.

When Calvey began hearing from others who crossed her path about how God used the sign of a butterfly to comfort those grieving the loss of a loved one, she began to explore these occurrences, becoming more aware of their frequency of happening. Calvey began to hear about other “sign stories”– red cardinals, dragon flies, feathers, music, flowers, and even a “divine fortune cookie,” to name a few.

The 136-page nonfiction book of inspirational stories detailing the butterfly phenomenon, brings the age-old debate up for discussion, ‘Are these signs or merely coincidences or an incidental occurrence?’ For Calvey they are not coincidental.

As a caregiver for four parents who were allowed to die in their own homes, there is always “great matters of life and death,” to deal with, says Calvey in writing her book. “Two people in the equation – one wondering if their loved one will be okay, along with the finality of facing if they truly believe there is an afterlife. And one soon to be on the other side wondering the same. Both hoping to somehow be able to communicate that answer. The Butterfly Club is the communication of their answer,” she says.

Calvey recounts a story told her by Jackie, her cousin, who attended the wake of her brother. She had met a man wearing a butterfly pin on his lapel. In conversation, he mentioned that his daughter, AnneMarie, had died of leukemia in 1997. It seems that the 17-year-old had clearly found a way to send a signal to her father that she was okay, through a butterfly. When asked about the lapel pin, he smiled and said, “Welcome to the Butterfly Club,” and then walked away.

“There wasn’t a name for this experience, but in talking to people, you learn just how many people share it,” Calvey said, thus- naming her tome “Welcome to the Butterfly Club.”

Calvey herself had shared in a butterfly encounter many years before she wrote The Butterfly Club when Danny, an 18 year-old outgoing, charismatic, loved by everyone, boy from her church community was killed by a hit-and-run driver after leaving for college only three weeks earlier. “His mother was at a point where she felt she couldn’t bear to go on,” Calvey explained. “She took a walk in the woods and sat on a fallen log wanting to bury herself in her grief, when a monarch butterfly alighted on a small stick near her feet. Danny’s mother bent down to pick it up and sensed that the butterfly would not fly away. She looked at it in her hands and described this feeling to me, that it was as if her son were speaking the words to her himself, “Mom, it’s okay. I’m alright.” “The transformation I saw in her and the healing that followed was no less than miraculous,” Calvey said. “Now, when people ask her if they could have real proof that a butterfly can be a sign from God or a loved one, she tells them people like Nancy are all the real proof I need!”

Fortune Cookies Bring Messages, Too

At a Cranston book signing event, Calvey told this writer a story from her book, describing a divine sign that came through a message from a fortune cookie, delivered in perfect timing, one that brought comfort to her and was an “undeniable message” from her deceased father that he “was okay, and with God.”

As her father was dying Calvey sensed his fear of dying and the unknown and sought to comfort him by saying “you do know that you are going to heaven.” She stressed that he had lived his whole life as an example of the Good Samaritan in the parable that Jesus told. Calling him a “Good Samaritan” she recounted all the people throughout his life that he had helped. The day after he died, Chinese food was brought in and Calvey’s mother opened a fortune cookie, receiving this message, “The Good Samaritan did not get his name through good intentions.” “The sign of the fortune cookie could not have been a more perfect communication to deliver the message to our family that our father was indeed in heaven,” Calvey explained.

Calvey has heard from readers from all over the world who found comfort in reading her book and closure by knowing a loved one can still communicate through signs across the veil by reading her book. Their shared experience is the key for those who haven’t seen their sign as of yet and, perhaps will help them learn how to recognize their own encounter.

“A sign is undeniable. It’s making the connection of the perfect timing of a loved one delivering a message to you, that constitutes the difference,” adds Calvey. “But through the years, I’ve found it never works to ask God for a sign. Signs come to you only in God’s perfect timing,” she says.

Calvey’s book details stories of people who experience universal signs. “They don’t know they are part of a club,” she says. “But they are.”

Readers can share their views or tell their own “sign story” or purchase, “The Butterfly Club: “Is That You?”’ by going to http://www.butterflyclubbook.com.

To order, go to pcalvey@hotmail.com. Or call (617) 869-2576.

Revelations Bring Together Heaven, Earth

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 17, 2016

Approaching their twilight years, aging baby boomers might occasionally think about their impending mortality, even contemplating what happens after their last breath is taken, wondering what lies beyond the veil. But a growing number of people who have reported Near Death Experiences (NDE) may just shed some light to this age old question.

Although some people, diagnosed clinically dead, come back to life after being revived with no conscious memory of this experience, others experiencing a NDE report vivid, personal memories of their out-of-body trip across the veil. During this spiritual experience the person may meet dead family, friends and even their spiritual teacher, see a white light or travel through a tunnel.

Critics of NDE may try to explain away this experience as being the result of psychological and physiological causes, but those who come back with their direct knowledge of the afterlife don’t buy these explanations.

Dozens of books have been published, many being listed on the New York Times best sellers list, detailing the author’s clinical death and NDE, they strongly believe as evidence of an afterlife.

One book, published by Rodale Books in 2015, details what Tommy Rosa, a Bronx-born plumber learned in 1999 about health and healing during his NDE and coming back to life. Rosa’s chance meeting at a conference with Dr. Stephen Sinatra, an integrative cardiologist and psychotherapist, seen on “Dr. Oz” and “The Doctors,” would lead to the publishing of a 247 page book, Health Revelations from Heaven and Earth.

One such book, published by Rodale Books in 2015, details what Tommy Rosa, a Bronx-born plumber learned in 1999 about health and healing during his NDE and coming back to life. Rosa’s chance meeting at a conference with Dr. Stephen Sinatra, an integrative cardiologist and psychotherapist, seen on “Dr. Oz” and “The Doctors,” would lead to the publishing of a 247 page book, Health Revelations from Heaven and Earth.

A reading of this book reveals two very different approaches at looking at health, one gleaned from a spiritual experience and the other by scientific training, but both lead to the same set of conclusions. The tome offers eight health revelations (being connected with others, faithfulness, your vital force, grounding, being positive, self-love, seeing your body as a temple, and life’s purpose) geared to helping you live your best, healthiest life, revitalize yourself and embrace a new found sense of purpose and spiritual balance — gleaned from Rosa’s experience and fully corroborated by four decades of medical expertise and other scientific evidence by Dr. Sinatra, who practices in St. Petersburg, Florida, Manchester, Connecticut.

Rosa believes experiences described in his book are different from other NDE books published. His eight revelations can be applicable in the reader’s daily life.

To date, Rosa has promoted his book and his heavenly revelations in newspapers, radio and television. Over 20,000 copies of his book have been sold.

Peeking Over the Veil

Eighteen years ago, Rosa was walking across the street to a local convenience store to buy bread and he was hit by a car and became clinically dead for several minutes. Right after he was hit, Rosa felt a tug whisking him off into a tunnel of light [a common NDE]. The 58-year-old was rushed to the hospital and resuscitated, but left in a coma for weeks. During his NDE Rosa found himself in “Heaven,” where he met a spiritual Teacher and was taught the fundamentals about health and healing.

Ultimately, Rosa remembers that he would emerge from his coma not only grateful to be alive, but with a new found sense of intuition, increased empathy and more awareness of the connection to Heaven and Earth.

Rosa, a founder of the Stuart, Florida-based Unicorn Foundation whose mission is to bring spiritual awareness and education to everyday people, says that the most important revelation of his NDE was that all living things are connected. “No one’s actions are isolated to that specific person, but that every action has a ripple effect throughout the energy of our fellow,” he says. In this book. Dr. Sinatra confirms the importance of this revelation, noting how the need for human connection lies at the very heart of human existence. He describes how the practitioner’s ability to empathize with his patients is what truly facilitates the healing process, and also touches upon how one’s emotions can influence their health and overall well being.

His perspective of religion and living life has changed, too. Although he was raised a strict Catholic, the diversity of beliefs serves “Heaven” leading a person to a higher divine plane of consciousness. “I know now that everything is a dream and that you don’t sweat the small stuff,” he says.

Synchronicity Births a Book

At the time of Rosa’s NDE, Dr. Stephen Sinatra was dismantling the prevailing ideas of preventive pharmacology with his holistic approach to treatment. When Rosa met the Florida-based cardiologist, he got an intuitive feeling that the physician had an infection in his hip. This insight confirmed Dr. Sinatra’s own similar thoughts of infection, and he was later diagnosed with a staph infection. When Rosa shared with Dr. Sinatra the divine revelations of healing that he had learned in his celestial travels, the cardiologist was shocked–the keys to solving the imbalance of energy that he had identified as the cause of most chronic illness were the same as those Tommy was relating. Until this point, Dr. Sinatra hadn’t thought about how they were all connected and now it all made sense.

A dinner conversation would propel Rosa and Dr. Sinatra to write Health Revelations from Heaven and Earth, a book covering spiritual revelations from Rosa’s NDE and putting a medical slant to it. “I was prepped for this incredible conversation as I had many NDEs in my own cardiac practice,” remembers Dr. Sinatra. Once Rosa had discussed how he learned not only the importance of “grounding,” during his NDE but other health topics Dr. Sinatra was espousing in his medical practice and at lectures, it was clear to both that a book project must begin. And it did.

Millions Experience NDE

Over the years, Jeffrey Long, M.D., a leading NDE researcher, has documented over 3,000 NDEs, posted on the http://www.nderf.org website. The practicing radiation oncologist says that this data base is by far the largest collection of NDEs, available in 22 languages, that is publicly accessible. Readers from over 100 different foreign countries access Dr. Long’s web site monthly. Over 300,000 pages are read from this website every month.

Meanwhile, Dr. Long’s website, notes that although most people who come near death do not remember anything, around 18% [like Rosa] later report that “something happened.” That “something” is often a near-death experience NDE, says Long. He notes a 1993 Gallop Poll estimated that 12 to 15 million Americans personally experienced a NDE. As of 2001, almost 600 adults per day across the nation experience an NDE.

In this book Rosa pokes a hole in the veil between the living and dead. He tells it like it is. Because of his NDE he does not fear death. “Death is only a new beginning,” he says

During his 40 years in medical practice Dr. Sinatra had been at the bedside of many of his dying patients. “Some I saved. Some I lost,” he said, acknowledging that being with his dying patients often frightened him.” Rosa’s spiritual journey and the lessons learned have brought peace to Dr. Sinatra, his co-author. “In a heartbeat he literally saved me from my own fear of death,” he says.

To purchase a copy of Health Revelations from Heaven and Earth, go to http://www.healthrevelationsbook.com.