Conveying information about spirituality without words

How we are using an occupational therapy model to design an interactive exhibit in a virtual world

Have you ever engaged in a discussion about spirituality only to find yourself stuck? What is spirituality? How does it differ from religion?  How do different people experience it? And, why does it matter?  Answering these questions can be challenging for anyone.  But, imagine not being able to use words to talk about it.

The team behind the Garden of Healthy Aging has been working hard to streamline the exhibits in Second Life and the linked wiki pages using the principles of Health Literacy.  In the past few months, we updated exhibits and wiki pages on topics such as diabetes, healthy hearts, caregiving, social supports, healthy activity, and brain health to make them more user-friendly.

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Though we experienced hurdles with each of these topics, by far the most challenging exhibit to develop was the exhibit on spirituality and aging. We wanted to address the difference between spirituality and religion and focus specifically on spirituality and its effects on aging.  We found that while there was plenty of research on religion and aging, evidence on spirituality was more limited.  We wanted the exhibit to be inclusive of all beliefs and practices, as well as being concrete enough to convey the meaning of spirituality and how it can be cultivated to improve health outcomes for aging adults.

Because the possibilities for interaction in Second Life are bound only by one’s imagination and building skills, we did not want to limit ourselves to using words as the primary medium.  The most effective way to convey this information was to harness interactive capabilities such as animation, object/person interfacing, sound, and links to our wiki pages.  The question was how to make it feel intuitive.

The first order of business was to identify a model or theme to guide the design of the exhibit and to ensure consistency of the information presented within it.  In our theory class, we had studied the Kawa ‘River’ Model, designed by Japanese occupational therapist, Michael Iwama.  This model is used by occupational therapists to help clients map or draw out their lives in a visual way in an effort to help the client identify supports and obstacles in their particular life circumstances.

There are several key features of the Kawa Model.  The river itself represents the course of life, with a beginning and end.  The river walls and bottom represent an individual’s social and physical environment (family, friends, co-workers).  The water represents one’s energy or life flow.  Objects in the river, such as rocks or driftwood, change the flow of the water, both positively and negatively.  Rocks represent life circumstances (health conditions, injury, illness) and driftwood represents assets and liabilities (personality, values, skills, living situation).  The idea is that fewer or smaller  objects in the river promote a stronger flow, or better well-being.

The Kawa Model seems to suit the topic of spirituality and aging perfectly.  The metaphor of the river and its grounding in elements of nature is fitting for the discussion of spirituality.  The Kawa Model is open-ended, allowing for more client-centered exploration of spirituality, and individuals of any culture can relate to the image of the river.  The Kawa Model also allows for change across the lifespan, which is an extremely important consideration in a forum focused on aging.

We chose the Kawa Model for use in Second Life because we could effectively convey ideas about spirituality across the lifespan using an interactive river within the exhibit.  Visitors in the Garden of Healthy Aging will have the opportunity to obtain their own river models by clicking on a sign that gives them a kit comprising the river, rocks, and driftwood. They can then take the kit home with them and put together a personalized version by naming and positioning the rocks and driftwood as challenges, opportunities, life events, and so forth. For example, enrollment in OT school could be a “rock” that has moved the river in a particular direction. A piece of driftwood covering a portion of the river could represent a challenge or an opportunity presented to the student. In this way, visitors can examine their own lives by experimenting with their models, to show how these factors in their lives change or could change the course of their lives.

Below are screenshots of the spirituality exhibit within the Garden of Healthy Aging, including a close-up of the interactive model. The Kawa Model elements will be added to the Garden and the team will have a public event in which graduate students and faculty will explain the Kawa model as it applies to human adaptation. This event will take place later in September or in early October.

While the interactive model can be used as means of exploring spirituality, it does not necessarily have to serve that purpose and can be used however the visitor would like. Visitors can also give their models to Garden of Healthy Aging staff to be added to the river and become part of the exhibit.

The spirituality exhibit in Second Life is complemented by a corresponding wiki post which describes the Kawa Model, gives definitions and examples of spirituality, and provides evidence to support the cultivation of everyday spiritual experiences to promote health and well-being in older adults.  The wiki was intended to be used as a springboard to enhance understanding of the topic of spirituality before diving into the exhibit in Second Life.

Our hope is that purposeful interactions within the Spirituality & Aging exhibit will enhance visitors’ understanding of this complex topic so that they can identify the rocks and driftwood in their river. Reflecting on their own opportunities, challenges, and life events may then help them understand the “flow” of their lives and avoid the feeling of being stuck.