10 ways to minister to those with dementia and their families

10 ways to minister to those with dementia and their families

By Crystal Caviness

Individuals living with dementia are among the most marginalized of all people, says retired bishop Ken Carder.Yet, Carder says, he believes “that God comes to us primarily in the vulnerable and the marginalized.” On a regular basis, he has experienced God’s loving presence in his work among individuals living with dementia, whose diminished capacity to remember and reason often leaves them separated and isolated from their former lives and communities of support.

Carder speaks about this topic with firsthand experience. In addition to caring for his wife, Linda, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2009, Carder is the chaplain at Bethany, the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman senior living community near Columbia, South Carolina. Carder also provides pastoral care, leads a weekly Bible study and a Sunday worship service at Bethany.

Carder began visiting the residents at Bethany several years ago after he and his wife moved to a home there. Eventually, he agreed to serve as Bethany’s chaplain, a role he now performs as a volunteer in honor of his wife.

The gift of living in the moment

“Ministry with people with dementia is a wonderful opportunity to experience the presence of God in a unique way,” Carder says. “We tend to underestimate people with dementia, approaching them in terms of their deficits and, therefore, missing their gifts.”

One of the gifts, Carder says, is that people with dementia live in the moment.

“They don’t lose their sense of time; they lose their tense of time,” he says.

When together, they can be present with each other in a caring, attentive way. The same happens in worship.

“We often underestimate their cognitive ability in worship,” he said. “They can have amazing insights — insights that are more from the heart than the brain.”

“People with dementia communicate at a spiritual level. We assume they don’t have spiritual needs. They also have spiritual gifts to offer. Regrettably, they are ignored by local churches.”

Incorporating those with dementia into the life of the church

Carder’s understanding of people with dementia comes from his experiences with his wife, as well as studying the topic. Carder admits that during his years of leading numerous churches, including serving as bishop of the Mississippi and Tennessee conferences before retiring in 2004, he may not have been as attentive to parishioners with dementia as he should have been.

“We assume if they don’t know me when I arrive and they don’t know me when I’m there, then what’s the point in going?” he says.

Carder asserts the assumption is incorrect.

“The emotion created in the moment lasts beyond the moment. They may forget the visit, but the emotion lingers. If it was a moment of connection, the feeling created continues,” he says. “They know at a level beyond the brain.”

Integrating people with dementia into the life of the congregation is not easy, but, Carder says, doing so may bring you closer to God.

10 ways churches can support people with dementia and their families

For church leaders wanting to minister to those with dementia and their families, Carder offers these 10 ways:

  1. Identify and be present with those in the congregation affected by dementia as patients, family members, and/or caregivers.
  2. Provide education about dementia and help remove its stigma.
  3. Include people with dementia in the life of the congregation, including worship services that connect with those with cognitive impairment. 
  4. Provide support groups for people with dementia and for caregivers.
  5. Help preserve memories of, and for, those whose memories have faded.
  6. Proclaim in word and deed that human identity and worth are held by God and do not lie in capacities, including cognition and language skills.
  7. Advocate for healthcare policies that provide dignity and resources for those with dementia.
  8. Create adult day care ministries that provide stimulation and community for people with dementia and respite opportunities for caregivers.
  9. Visit regularly in the homes, provide occasional meals and transportation, and give caregivers a break.
  10. Give special support during times of transition, especially when a member is being admitted to a care facility

“I say to include people with dementia into the life of the church rather than relegating them onto a homebound list,” Carder says. “Doing so would mean we have to rethink how we do worship and Christian education, how we do a lot of things. And that would be good for the church.”

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Learn about how you can take action to raise awareness. For additional information, contact Faith United Against Alzheimer’s, a diverse coalition of faith leaders working to fight against Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

— Caviness is a Public Relations Specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.

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