EKU Faculty and Staff Scholarship


Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-18-2018



Sandage and Shults (2007) suggest that “all spirituality can be viewed as relational” (p. 263). Likewise, according to Heyse-Moore (1996), “we exist to relate to each other and if we do not our spirit dries up within us like a desert” (p. 307). Spirituality reflects our “innate human yearning for meaning through intra-, inter-, and transpersonal connectedness” (Belcher & Griffiths, 2005, p. 272). If spirituality is the experience of meaningful relationships, then it is important to understand what relationships are meaningful to clients. These relationships are particularly important in long-term care.


Long-term care involves a network of relationships associated with the experience of congregant life. Relationships become a way to respond to life limiting illness. Relationships with other residents enable clients to feel they are not alone. Relationships with certified nursing assistants enable clients to bathe themselves, put clothes on, and brush their teeth. Relationships with nurses enable clients to take their medications and receive additional health care. Relationships with family and friends help clients feel connected to the outside world. Therefore, relationships can help clients survive and, in some cases, thrive.


Based on the author’s experience as a clinical social worker, a composite case study is used to demonstrate how relationships informed nursing home life for “Sue” (Callahan 2017b). Sue had a number of significant micro, mezzo, and macro level relationships. The provision of social work required sensitivity to how these relationships enhanced Sue’s life. Social work intervention helped Sue maintain these relationships and create more meaningful relationships as her needs changed.


The death of Sue’s husband led to an emergent need for privacy to grieve. Sue’s questions about an afterlife also necessitated a referral to Sue’s pastor. She was initially uncomfortable about joining group activities that led to new efforts to engage in self-care through prayer. Mobility issues seemed to exacerbate Sue’s anxiety which required extra effort to connect with staff to shower after the morning rush. Sue’s need for a wheelchair further impacted engagement with the natural world. Although Sue could not garden anymore, she could still enjoy watching the seasons change and sitting in the sun.


In the end, Sue faced life challenges and met emergent needs through meaningful relationships. Sue’s experience lends insight into the potential therapeutic power of relational spirituality. Social workers must be sensitive to the spiritual importance of relationships that give life meaning and engage clients in efforts to help them grow (Callahan, 2017a). Given that people are different, so is the way relationships inform life meaning. The type of social work intervention is further relative to professional expertise (Hodge, 2016); however, the need to convey spiritual sensitivity remains as long as there is social work to do.


Belcher, A., & Griffiths, M. (2005). The spiritual care perspectives and practices of hospice nurses. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing, 7(5), 271-279.

Callahan, A. M. (2017a). Spirituality and hospice social work. New York: Columbia University Press. Available at http://cup.columbia.edu/book/spirituality-and-hospice-social-work/9780231171731

Callahan, A. M. (2017b, February). Relational spirituality. Social Work Today Web Exclusive. Available at http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/exc_0217.shtml

Heyse-Moore, L. H. (1996). On spiritual pain in the dying. Mortality, 1(3), 297-315.

Hodge, D. R. (2016). Spiritual competence: What it is, why it is necessary, and how to develop it. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 1-16. DOI: 10.1080/15313204.2016.1228093

Sandage, S. J., & Shults, F. L. (2007). Relational spirituality and transformation: A relational integration model. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 26(3), 261-269.

Conference Name

The 6th European Conference on Religion, Spirituality and Health and the 5th International Conference of the British Association for the Study of Spirituality