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Becoming a dementia-friendly church

Churches are well-placed to be at the forefront of dementia friendliness and inclusiveness, as God’s kingdom includes all. We are all part of the body of Christ and the Bible assures us that no condition can separate us from the love of God.

My father had dementia and could still pray fervently to God, even when he didn’t know who I was. Churches tend to be involved with many older people, when dementia is more common, although I have at least a dozen Christian friends who, like me, were under 60 when they developed the condition. The spiritual never dies and the Church can help people rekindle forgotten or neglected faith, and to show love and acceptance.

It gives me such joy when I see some with dementia return to God in the dementia-friendly ‘village’ I live in, or find him for the first time. Many of their inhibitions from the past are gone and they respond to God’s love and acceptance, finding purpose and comfort once again in what can be a very tough and lonely time.

Churches have immense opportunities in this area. Dementia-friendly churches should not just be friendly, but should encouraging life and actively help those with dementia to find a way through the fog.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (The Message) says:

“Love never dies...Inspired speech will be over some day…understanding will reach its limit...We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines. We’ll see it all then…as clearly as God sees us...But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do...Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.”

I was on the pastoral team at a previous church when I received my dementia diagnosis. I was saddened by the presumption that if we didn’t remember that we had been visited we weren’t worth visiting. My vicar and his wife were superb, but some churches have suggested that when I couldn’t cope with something I should stay away or attend the younger children’s classes!

Some practical tips

When it comes to dementia, too much of anything – noise, numbers or anything unfamiliar – makes sufferers feel worse. We should be looking out for people who are unable to follow the service, who withdraw from interaction, who don’t recognise familiar people, who always arrive late and leave early, and who tell the same story several times.

Other tell-tale signs might be people not joining in with new songs and looking puzzled, or no longer being unable to find their way around church books. If someone starts to come alone, is particularly protective of a relative or has a spouse with dementia, these signs should also spark our attention.

If you suspect that someone you know might be experiencing dementia, make sure you approach them from the front and make good eye contact. Welcome them gladly with a smile and introduce yourself. If necessary, lead them to a seat and make sure they are sitting next to someone. Be patient and calm, and don’t ask questions. Talk slowly and address one subject at a time, rather than jumping around.

If they need it, help them to take Communion as they may forget what they need to do. They may also forget where they were originally sitting if they have to go to the front to receive it. Reassure them of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, because those with dementia can forget this. Be prepared to spend time with the carer if they have one. This can be a very lonely and difficult role and the carer may be struggling more than the person with dementia.

If you’re in charge of organising the service, try to include familiar hymns and tunes, and keep noise levels to a controlled level. Make the service length suitable for those who may struggle to keep up and try to focus on one topic in the sermon rather than giving several messages. Provide resources with large print on plain backgrounds where possible.

The person with dementia

People with dementia remember feelings rather than facts. No matter the condition or disability, we should all feel loved, accepted and welcome. It’s important that we have a sense of purpose and many people can still do things with someone else alongside them.

Perhaps those with dementia could give out or collect things, help with tea and coffee duty, or, if fit, set out or clear away the chairs. It may be necessary to collect them from home or sit with them to make sure they don’t feel overwhelmed by too many books, pieces of paper, or people.

Church help

During the week, the church could be made available for a luncheon club or as a social meeting place for those with dementia. It might help to arrange a special, shorter service for those with dementia, with familiar hymns, tea and cake. You could also run a special dementia group with activities that help to slow down the progression of dementia.

Church members could visit those who live alone, support carers by taking them out for coffee and a chat, and spend time with the person living with dementia so the carer can get out for a break. Members of the congregation could also ‘adopt’ a residential home for warm visiting, not just for providing Communion.

The aims should always be to promote comfort, belonging, inclusion and purpose.

Lisa Mainwaring & Dr Jennifer Bute