BACKGROUND: The literature suggests that the notion of holistic health has gained popularity in the nursing of older persons. Holistic care, based on the premises that there is a balance between body, mind and spirit, is important for well-being, that each of these is interconnected, and that each affects the others. Human spirit is considered to be the essence of being and is what motivates and guides us to live a meaningful existence. However, there is little evidence in the nursing literature about how nurses caring for older people respond to their spiritual needs. AIM: The aim of this paper is to report a critical incident study to: (1) explore nurses' perceptions of their role in addressing the spiritual needs of older people; (2) describe what constitutes spiritual care of old people in the light of the findings. METHODS: Descriptions of critical incidents were obtained from a convenience sample of 52 nurses working in the East Midlands Region of the United Kingdom (UK) and subjected to content analysis and construction of a data classification system. FINDINGS: Respondents were prompted to identify patients' spiritual needs by factors such as religious beliefs and practice (prayer); absolution; seeking connectedness, comfort and reassurance, healing or searching for meaning and purpose. The interventions initiated to meet patients' spiritual needs included respect for privacy; helping patients to connect; helping patients to complete unfinished business; listening to patients' concerns; comforting and reassuring; using personal religious beliefs to assist patients and observation of religious beliefs and practices. CONCLUSION: The findings provide empirical evidence of some practices related to spiritual care of older people. Further empirical research is needed to guide practice and education with regard to conceptual clarity and the delivery of spiritual care of older people.
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