The faith needs of our church members with dementia may vary, but we can support our members at all levels of dementia. Long-term memory and faith practice can be called on to keep people connected to how they know themselves and those around them.
The spiritual life of a person is not ended by dementia. It can be supported and affirmed by respecting the person as a unique individual. By validating their faith experience, we help our members find personal strength through their faith and connections with those around them.
Care of persons with dementia. When caring for our church members with dementia, we want to offer a supportive environment with routine and appropriate activities.
Whose reality is it? Remember that as some dementias progress, the person lives in the moment. His or her reality may be in the past. Knowing more about their youth may be helpful as you work to connect with them. When speaking, be sure to make eye contact. Ask, "How are you?" Validate the feelings and emotions that are shared. This helps the person know that they have been heard.
When visiting someone with memory loss, don't talk about the person—talk to and with them. Keep the setting free from distractions and provide reassurance if the person feels frustrated.
Actively listen and watch for facial expressions. Focus on a word or phrase that is said. Respond to emotions. When interacting, stay calm, patient, and aware of your body language. The person with dementia may pick up on your mood. Music can be used to start a visit, connect, or create a distraction from other annoyances.
To be understood by the person with dementia, remember that silence is golden. Allow enough time for the person to process what is said, repeating words as needed. Use concrete words, simple sentences, phrases, and responses. Never talk down to someone or speak as if to a child. Do not shout. Try demonstrating your conversation visually. Reassure the person as needed. Reduce choices in conversations or activities. You can change the subject if the person gets frustrated.
When words don't work, try not to get frustrated. Your feelings will be mirrored by the person you are visiting. Try distraction with a simple activity, such as singing, walking, or even dancing. Ignore verbal outbursts and do not take them personally. Remember that these behaviors are not aimed at you. The person sharing their frustration. If offering food or drink, always be aware of any dietary concerns.
Activities to do together. When considering activities, find something familiar to the person that they enjoy. Familiar prayers and hymns bring comfort and can be a good place to start. Limit choices, which decreases frustration. Model what you are asking them to do. Faith symbols, such as a favorite Bible, cross, or hymnal can bring comfort. Familiar prayers or scriptures, such as Psalm 23, can also bring comfort. Use familiar Bible texts, perhaps in the King James Version rather than newer translations. Remember that their reality may be in the past. Know the person. If using photos, do not ask specific questions but allow the person to share. Validate feelings they have. Offer reassurance.
Things to consider. How has your congregation responded to persons with dementia disorders in their midst? Does this work? How can the congregation's response and involvement be improved? Speak with the family and local resources like the Alzheimer's Association, your area's Agency on Aging, or senior service providers for tips.
Support for our members with dementia (and thereby, their caregivers) brings wholeness to our congregations.
Heddie Sumner is a registered nurse with a BSN degree. Before her retirement, Heddie served as a care manager, director of dementia services, and director of resources and development for Senior Services of Midland County Council on Aging in Michigan. Heddie is co-author of A Family-Centered Alzheimer's Care: A Caregiver's Manual and Doing More with Less: Michigan Dementia Coalition. She provides training about dementia for staff of nursing homes, adult day care programs, and adult foster care homes. She also trains ministers, deacons, and congregations on how to engage people with disabilities, including those with dementia. Heddie lives in Eagle Rock, Virginia, with her husband Bill. They attend the Daleville Church of the Brethren in Daleville, Virginia.