Religions share an understanding of the importance of caring for people's physical, emotional and spiritual needs -- and this precious insight is especially needed in the field of palliative care, said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

That is why the Pontifical Academy for Life, which the archbishop heads, was co-hosting a joint symposium with the Qatar Foundation to discuss "Religion and Medical Ethics: Palliative Care and the Mental Health of the Elderly."

The "culture of care" is opposed to "the culture of disposal," which sees the elderly as unproductive, useless or being an unnecessary burden to society, Archbishop Paglia said at a news conference at the Vatican Dec. 10.

The need to offer holistic and appropriate care to people nearing the end of their life's journey is increasingly more important as the world's elderly population grows and as rising costs for their care may negatively impact national policies and individual decisions concerning end-of-life issues, he said.

Helping communities and countries take notice of this issue is key, he said, if they hope "to avoid that the growing number of elderly leads not just to a culture of disposal, but actual disposal, that is the culture of euthanasia."

The papal academy and the World Innovation Summit for Health -- WISH, an initiative of the Qatar Foundation -- were hosting the gathering Dec. 11-12 in Rome with support from the British Medical Journal.

More than 250 people were expected to attend the event, examining the benefits of religion and spirituality in improving the well-being and quality of life for patients and families. Presentations were scheduled to include Jewish, Christian and Islamic approaches to medical ethics and palliative care.

Sultana Afdhal, CEO of WISH, told reporters that involving both medical experts and spiritual leaders in discussions "would provide a priceless opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the very real ethical dilemmas experienced by health care practitioners from different spiritual backgrounds across our world" when dealing with sensitive and difficult subjects, including palliative care for minors.

By learning about how other faiths respond to these issues, the organizers "hope to discover some fresh approaches to follow, both medically and spiritually," and to establish some common ground, she said.

"By seeking to provide more uniform approaches to dealing with ethical challenges, we can be more effective in our efforts to help those in need. We can also be united in our efforts to advance the idea that to treat people holistically and in a way that alleviates suffering requires a willingness to consider a person’s spiritual needs, as well as their physical and mental needs," she added.

Dr. Kamran Abbasi, a physician and executive editor of the British Medical Journal, told reporters that the journal has always supported scientific, evidenced-based approaches to care.

Because patients and their families are increasingly part of decision-making in health care issues and because "people's beliefs play an important and central part in their decision making about their health," it is important "that we find ways to make sure that people from all faiths and backgrounds are able to draw on the evidence and science to live long and healthy lives," he said.

"Religious beliefs and evidence must work in harmony to help patients and their families face these complex challenges," such as end-of-life care and the mental health of the elderly, said Abbasi.

"At a moment of global discord, disharmony and danger, it is symbolic that we are gathering here at the Vatican to show the power of people from all faiths and backgrounds in coming together to solve the world's problems," he said.