Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/13 2016

Alzheimer’s and Counseling

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Alzheimer's disease and counselingIt’s tax time. Insert audible groan here. Even with tools like Turbo Tax, Tax Act, and all the rest, successfully filing your taxes can be a major headache. As is the tradition each year, my mom and I sat down together to work on my taxes one recent Saturday. I’m pretty sure I only raised my voice in frustration once and she only gave me “that look” a few times. Some mothers and daughters bond over shopping in Pittsburgh. We bond over our frustration with technology at tax time.

While calculating my deductions, my mom noted that I supported the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s not a big check, but I write it faithfully every year. “Are you hoping they find a cure before I need it?” she half joked. I answered back, “At least before I need it.”

Today more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s. And while I’ve never personally been affected by the disease, I fear the day a loved one is among the 5 million. How would I help her? How would I handle her care? What will be the medical treatments by then? How would I care for myself while caring for her? If I’m the one affected, how would I want to be treated? Should I seek help from a pastor? A social worker? A counselor? Hopefully those advancements in research and treatment come soon and we see the day that we no longer need Alzheimer’s support groups.

Until then, I’m grateful for people like Dr. Lisa Genova, who holds degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience. Acclaimed as the Oliver Sacks of fiction, she is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Still Alice, Left Neglected, Love Anthony, and Inside the O’Briens. She says, “Stories are a way into people’s hearts, and when this happens, we have more than knowledge. We have real understanding, empathy, sensitivity, the ability to be better caregivers, and maybe the motivation to get involved.”

In the book-turned-movie Still Alice, (Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Alice), Genova tells the story of Dr. Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor (a detail that’s different in the book). When words begin to escape her and she starts becoming lost on her daily jogs, Alice must come face to face with a devastating diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Genova takes a complex neurological disease—and one of my biggest fears—and turns it into a heartbreaking and inspiring story.

Lisa Genova will be at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary June 16. During that time she’ll discuss Alzheimer’s and her latest books. This event—including lecture, Q&A, and book signing—is a great opportunity for health care providers, social workers and pastoral counselors, family and friends of those suffering from the disease, and book clubs to join the conversation. Group rates are available. Learn more about “Understanding Alzheimer’s: A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Genova.

For the last decade plus, Melissa Logan has worked as the director of communications at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. When not updating the Seminary’s website or tweeting about the MDiv/MSW degree, she’s likely hunting for treasures at flea markets or hanging out with her furry friends.



2/15 2016

Care and Counseling for the Caregiver

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pastoral counseling education“Being a caregiver is easy,” said no one, ever.

Whether you work for a health care agency, a hospital, or care for a loved one at home, being a caregiver is incredibly draining work.  You are expected to give all you can to help someone get through another day. The hours are long, the work is difficult, and many times efforts go unrecognized. It is no wonder that caregiver burnout is high, and caregivers often suffer from depression, sleep deprivation, and broken spirits.

Caregivers themselves need care and counseling; that much is certain. And yet, so often this care is not requested, or deemed unnecessary. Early in my career as a parish pastor, I could not understand the exhaustion felt by members of my congregation who were health care workers. Like many, I assumed that they would have all the support and resources necessary to engage in their professions. It was only after I left the parish to become a chaplain that I learned just how much those in the helping and healing professions are strained by their work.

For many caregivers, to ask for help is to admit weakness. Feeling overwhelmed is evidence of a lack of ability or proper training. Our egos often prevent us from recognizing our own needs, and when we do realize that we are suffering, we beat ourselves up rather than look upon ourselves with compassion.

This is especially true if one is a caregiver for a family member at home. Whether a caregiver is tending to a child with special needs or to an elderly parent, others often assume that the caregiver has everything in order and under control. When this is not the case, when the caregiver is overwhelmed by the needs of that family member, he or she may suffer alone. The fear of being judged often keeps caregivers from voicing concerns, stating needs, or asking others for help.

Chaplains, pastors and clergy are slowly being educated on the need for supporting and counseling caregivers, as are some health care agencies and hospitals. Unfortunately, though, there is still a long way to go to ensure that caregivers remain healthy and have all the support they need. In the meantime, those suffering under the weight of their responsibilities are left to find their own resources. In that spirit, I offer the following:

Build a Support Network

Build a support network of individuals who understand what you are going through. This list could include friends, clergy, co-workers, or a support group of professionals in your field.

Practice Self-Care

Practice self-care, and understand that it is not a sign of weakness. Self-care can take the form of any number of stress-reducing activities, from exercise to art to weekend trips away from caregiving responsibilities.

Create and Maintain Healthy Boundaries

If you are a professional caregiver, try not to become too emotionally entangled in what you do; as much as possible, try to “leave work at work.” If you care for a loved one at home, try to identify what is and is not your responsibility. For example, you may need to make it clear to your loved one that although you care deeply for him or her, you are not able to meet all of his or her needs all of the time. Explain that you need to work collaboratively with others in the community (physicians, therapists, pastors, friends, and other family members) in your caregiving efforts.

Consider Seeking Support

Consider seeking support from professional sources, such as a counselor, therapist, or spiritual director.  These resources can be invaluable for mitigating the stresses of caring for those in need.

Caregiving can be simultaneously the most demanding and the most rewarding work we do. It is part of what connects us to one another as human beings and embodies the love of God. It is vital to ensure that caregivers have adequate support and resources so that their ministry may continue.

The Rev. Scott Fuller is a D.Min. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served in several different positions in health care providing spiritual care and counseling for patients and their families. Currently,  he is a chaplain at Life Pittsburgh.


12/9 2015

Doctors and Pastors Serving Together to Counsel End of Life Patients

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ending-wellCounseling and care for patients at end of life presents numerous and complex medical, emotional, and spiritual issues. These issues are often treated separately, yet they overlap and intermingle in the experience of the dying patient.

Some may argue that doctors and pastors should operate in our various spheres of influence and expertise and stay out of each other’s way. I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But when it comes right down to it, I think those who work in the areas of medicine and pastoral care share a central goal—human flourishing, a broad understanding of the health and wholeness of individuals, families, and communities.

Medical professionals aren’t only concerned about eliminating disease from a person’s body and restoring that person to physical health; they are also concerned about the patient’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. And, even when it’s clear that a person’s prognosis is very poor, medical caregivers continue to ask, “How can we make the time this person has left as comfortable and meaningful as possible?” At the same time, medical professionals also ask questions about the kinds of relational and communal support that patients have as they face serious illness and death, and they are concerned not only about individual patients but about the social structures that either contribute to or diminish the health of the wider public.

Likewise, pastoral care, at its best, takes a holistic view of human persons and communities. Most of us as pastoral caregivers and counselors do not operate within a framework where we are only concerned with the “state of a person’s soul,” and not with what happens to a person’s body or overall well-being. Instead, we try to overcome that dualistic split between spirit and body and see the whole person as the subject that we need to address. This is why pastoral counselors are so often called upon to participate in conversations about advance care planning or other end-of-life issues: because people recognize that facing death isn’t just about what happens to their physical bodies or deciding which treatments they will or won’t pursue. It’s also about coming to terms with all that death means emotionally and spiritually; it’s about engaging honestly with questions about meaning, suffering, and hope. These are questions which medical caregivers can also address with their patients, and this is why we need to work as a team.

I think it’s clear where the medical professionals’ expertise lies. Our expertise as pastoral caregivers involves helping to give theological or spiritual language to what is happening in a person’s life, in a way that is congruent with that person’s religious tradition. As part of pastoral counseling, we can also offer some other unique gifts to those we serve: for example, we can offer rituals and other religious practices as means through which people can cope with their suffering; we can offer the resources of the faith community to assist people in their time of need; and we can, from a very practical perspective, help people with planning for their funerals or other services that will commemorate and celebrate their lives. After a person dies, we can also offer continuing counseling and supportive care to grieving family members and friends in ways that are often not possible or appropriate for medical professionals.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger once wrote, “Care is the basic constitutive phenomenon of human existence.” In other words, care is what makes the human being human, and this is why we are called to practice it in our various institutions and in our communities. Without care, individuals and communities cannot flourish. If human flourishing is our aim, we must remember that care is at the heart of all we do, and we must be intentional about cooperating with others who share that vision, so that our care does not become too one-sided or isolated from other helpful perspectives.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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