Chefs religieux, médecins, infirmières, aumôniers et professionnels de la santé lors d'un forum mondial à Rome
Religious leaders, physicians, nurses, chaplains and healthcare professionals took part in the symposium and contributed to the discussion sharing their questions, experiences, and the challenges they face in offering the patient spiritual and medical assistance. (Photo by Elisa Di Benedetto)

ROME—Religious communities can play a crucial role in helping families to cope with the global crisis of an aging population that is outpacing the resources of healthcare systems. That was the overall theme of a global conference in December: Symposium sur la religion et l'éthique médicale, a 2-day meeting co-hosted by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) and the Vatican’s Académie pontificale pour la vie.

Two co-founders of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ)—board director Maria-Paz Lopez and Europe regional representative Elisa Di Benedetto—represented the IARJ at these talks.

The World Health Organization has just launched a special focus from 2020 until 2030 on a Decade of Healthy Ageing. The crisis has been documented and alarms have been raised by international nonprofits, universities and news media around the world. Reports have appeared in the UN News, the BBC, Foreign Affairs magazine, Forbes, TIME, and many other international newspapers, magazines and media networks.

Our two IARJ representatives met with 250 religious leaders, healthcare experts and scholars from 35 countries in Rome for the symposium. The conference focused on spirituality in two key areas: palliative care and the mental health of the elderly.

This global movement of bringing interfaith and cross-cultural perspectives into healthcare systems has been growing in recent decades. That collaboration has been encouraged by public health experts around the world who increasingly point to the vital importance of an overall pattern of Social Determinants of Health. This broader vision of public health acknowledges that a person’s religious, cultural, social and community network is crucial to health and well-being.

Faith Perspectives on Ethics and Palliative Care

The symposium opened with the Islamic, Christian and Jewish approaches to ethics and palliative care, followed by a medical perspective on the role of religion in medical ethics, with a focus on the medical practitioners’ role in providing holistic palliative care. The rich agenda included a discussion on the unique challenges and approaches to palliative care for children and to suicide and life-threatening behavior among the elderly.

Religious faiths, traditions and community relationships can help to reduce suicide rates in populations studied by public health experts. That body of research was another topic of discussion at the conference—as well as research showing the connections between faith and maintaining the bridge of love between people with dementia and their caregivers.

Developing a Holistic Approach

One of the great highlights of the event was a call for an interfaith perspective in developing a holistic approach—considering both medical and spiritual needs—specifically in the area of medical ethics. A very insightful panel discussion explored whether a cooperative interfaith approach could improve palliative care in communities where families come from diverse backgrounds.

We have an opportunity here to frame the situation, look at the commonalities and at the existing gaps, because we can learn from each other and build a healthier world through global collaboration, said Sultana Afdhal, CEO of WISH, an initiative of the Qatar Foundation.

It is not just about talking to each other, but understanding each other’s viewpoint and taking the message back home in order to reframe it in a way people can understand it, she explained, stressing the importance of a collective approach involving religious leaders and medical experts. A secular doctor wouldn’t probably know what to say, and what not to say, from an Islamic point of view. There are chaplains who do talk about religion, who do give advice. Having the same frame would be very useful, for every religion, especially in a secular world.

Understanding Diversity

The first step is encouraging leaders in government, business and science to understand the implications of diversity in the communities they serve. Afdhal said she is optimistic, especially because of conferences like this one with such a high-profile audience. The Rome conference is encouraging in many ways, a-t-elle déclaré. We are glad to hear that there are countries acknowledging that there are people of different religions and having people there to talk to and help them.

The conference discussions on end-of-life issues were especially helpful, she said, We heard of services we didn’t know existed before and we are all understanding that end-of-life doesn’t mean living or dying without dignity. It is important that dying people feel as they are still people, still human, she continued, looking at what different religions have in common. What I find striking is that all of the religions emphasize the fact that you should have a lucid mind, not be sedated, when you die, because everyone wants to pray when they die.

The next step to follow up on the conversations held in Rome, will be training sessions for healthcare workers, providing them with the information, guidelines and framework they need. The patient-focused actions include a practical publication for healthcare workers that helps them better understand the needs of people of faith who are receiving palliative care, to be produced by WISH and the Pontifical academy for Life.

Already available is the White Book for Global Palliative Care Advocacy-Recommendations from the PAL-LIFE expert advisory group of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The Importance of Palliative Care

The need for more resources and specific training was stressed by Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in his closing remarks. Palliative care needs to be mandatory part of medical training for all health care professionals, a-t-il déclaré, and the culture of palliative care should be introduced into universities and become a mandatory subject in medical schools.

This meeting makes us optimistic. This is a very real thing, not just at intellectual level, added Professor Julian Hughes, a member of the clinical advisory board of the Journal of Medical Ethics, which co-sponsored the symposium. He also shares Afdhal’s optimism. There is much more work to be done in term of pinning down the things that unite us.

A Call to Action for Journalists

The symposium explored the challenges of choosing the proper language, words and narrative when addressing palliative care and mental health, which affect communities and civil society dealing with an ageing population.

Journalists in regions around the world, including specialists in reporting on religion, are learning that there are powerful stories to report on the global aging crisis—and also that there is a great deal of new background information to understand about concepts that will increasingly show up in news reports. That is why the IARJ will be encouraging a greater awareness of cross-cultural and interfaith issues involved in public health and aging. Look for related stories in our website in 2020.

What are these emerging issues? For example, said Afdhal, Palliative care is sensitive topic and that’s why we should be talking about that. I think all the religions struggle with conveying the message. She asked that journalists approach such topic with an open mind.

All of us need to have the right narrative and understand we are talking about people—and that our work affects our community, which is all over the world, a-t-elle déclaré.

Monsignor Paglia echoes Sultana’s call for accuracy: journalists and people working in the field of communication should feel the same responsibility in helping build relationships, promote compassion, and rediscover new words. This is really important in a world where self-interest, violence and hatred are growing.

Paglia asks journalists the same kind of question he asks religious leaders—that they rediscover their own passion, compassion and their mission, rather than being a distant, theoretical and functional apparatus.