Aging, dementia and the faith community

Aging, dementia and the faith community

by Barb Green, Parish Nurse Milton, Wis.

 

For some of us, the journey of aging will include dementia, the progressive loss of cognitive function—our thinking, reasoning, and remembering. Dementia is feared because it threatens our identity and our role as productive, contributing members of the community. Becoming a “burden” on others marks us as a failure at the task of successful aging.

Christians have a different story to tell about what gives our lives worth, value and meaning. Personhood is not defined by our bodies or our cognitive abilities, but rather by our relationships with others and with God.

Some question whether those with dementia can continue to live their faith if they are no longer able to remember God. They can, because faith is not dependent upon our individual memories or cognitive abilities.

If we should forget God, God will not forget us. Our faith community can remember us to God and bring His presence into our lives through means that do not require us to grasp that presence cognitively.

Dementia is just like any other disability that we often accommodate in the church. People with dementia should be encouraged to attend corporate worship. The familiar rituals, hymns and Bible readings speak on a deep level that doesn’t require grasping ideas or concepts. It provides people with the experience of being part of the gathered community of friends whose lives are intertwined with theirs—friends who call them by name and greet them with a smile or embrace.

There is no reason to not include people with dementia in service projects. Many can still read and may enjoy leading in the worship service, a singer may still be able to provide special music, a deacon to serve communion.

When we regard our elders as being beyond the obligation to serve others, we deprive them of their identity as Christ’s disciples. We may assume that they can only be “shut-ins” or the recipients of care from others rather than persons actively engaged in Christian service. Dementia does not reduce our capacity to love, or our need to give that love expression in caring for others.

The congregational practices that provide a supportive environment for members journeying into memory loss are the same practices that make the life of the faith community rich for all who participate. These include:

Attentive listening— Allowing the person to take his time in finding the word he wants to use rather than supplying it.

Patience and kindness— When asked the same question repeatedly, answer again calmly.

Focusing on ability rather than limitation

Providing practical support— Transportation, assistance with keeping a home clean, or respite care for the caregiver.

Maintaining an environment free from stigma and anxiety— The shared life of the church should be a setting where those with dementia should always know that they are among people who know them and love them.

Involving the entire community— Including children and youth. The young do not need to be “protected” from the reality of dementia. In many ways they are more open to appreciating and enjoying the presence of these elders than others are.

 

Pastoral leadership can have a lot to do with how a congregation supports those with dementia. If pastors regard persons with dementia as not worthy of their time and attention, the congregation is not likely to think or act differently.

Ours is an aging society. As the number of older adults in our congregations increases, the church will be called to new practices and new ministries, particularly with those persons living with dementia. Instead of insisting that dementia is a kind of “living death,” we should counter with the good news our Lord proclaimed to persons of all ages and in all of life’s circumstances: “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly!”

 

       (Adapted from “Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community” by John T. McFadden, M.Div. John serves as Chaplain at the Appleton, Wis., Health Care Center)

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