Can someone living with dementia still be involved in a Bible study? I can understand why some people might ask this question. You may think it is impossible when the symptoms could result in the loss of cognitive capacity or even language ability. Without these basic human functions, you can be forgiven for asking ‘how can you expect to carry out a bible study?’.
Surely it would be impossible to have any discussion about a biblical text, think about any theological principles, follow a story line narrative, understand a parable or a poetic structure?
However, this is reflecting wrong thinking on the purpose of a bible study for those living with dementia. The purpose should be a shift from a focus on deep learning to one of fellowship, personal interaction and inclusion. It’s not about digging deeply into a biblical point but about having time together in God’s presence.
As a leader, you don’t have to worry whether you make it through all you’ve prepared. If you only get partway through the passage that’s fine. You need to just be there because life living with dementia can be lonely as many people are scared to try and interact and so stay away.
So, what should we look at?
It is probably best to stick to familiar stories in the bible like creation, Joseph, Noah, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Samson, the Psalms or some of the well-known passages about Jesus, his parables or the encouraging teachings of Paul to the early church, heartfelt truths and passages on how to cling to God. It’s important to focus on God’s comfort, forgiveness, and promises of love and eternal presence.
When the group of attendees are participating always try to encourage and validate what they’re saying. Try not to correct but build on their point. If the topic shifts to something that you may feel is random don’t fret but encourage and bring back. It is possible that they may even answer a question with nonsensical words like “banana”, simply nod and affirm anything said to encourage participation.
· If they start to talk about their parents who are now dead, don’t try and correct or remind them of the fact but bring around to something positive like “family is so important to us and to God. God often acts as our father, caring for us no matter what. Thanks for that. Has anyone else got something to add?”
· “Yes, banana is a great word. Maybe we can look at food and the feeding of the five thousand another week but I can't guarantee there were any banana's in that story”
· If you have no idea what to say just thank them for their input saying something like “Interesting point do you want to add to that” and if not thank them for their input in a positive way
Things to avoid
Try to avoid asking directly, “Do you remember ……..?” as this can cause frustration for those living with dementia if they can’t remember.
Rather try to evoke long-term memories with open-ended statements.
· “I wonder who heard this story of the feeding of the five thousand in their Sunday School classes when they were little?”
If this technique seems helpful, encourage any recollections with follow on questions, such as “What else did you learn in Sunday School?”
Your goal should be to leave those attending feeling encouraged and loved by you and by God.
So How Should I Communicate?
Always identify yourself as you start the study so that everyone knows who you are and your role. This helps build confidence and familiarity, setting the study in the right place from the beginning. Remember that a smile goes along way when you talk. Try and set a relaxed unhurried pace, always speaking clearly and confidently maintaining good eye contact and acknowledging all input. It's all right to laugh together and to enjoy each others company.
It is likely that many in the group won’t remember the text you have looked at by the time you’ve finished with a closing prayer, but they may well remember the feeling of God’s presence, enjoying people’s company, and feeling affirmed as contributors in a group.