It is not uncommon for those living with dementia to slowly slip off the church radar when they develop dementia. As the condition begins to advance it sometimes seems easier not to come to church. Whilst for convenience this seems good to the carer, it brings isolation and separation from the very people who can help. It is so important that churches set themselves up to try and prevent this and to provide the most loving and supportive environment possible.
A well-developed pastoral care process is so important, and this is not just important in a church for those living with dementia. It is often not possible for a leader alone to deliver pastoral care or even know when people develop an illness in the whole church, especially where the church is larger, or the person is a private person. Pastoral care is about love and everyone has a responsibility to share God’s love with one another. Therefore, the very first place a Pastoral care process must start is in the teaching. If a congregation is loving someone who develops dementia they will not be able to fall off the radar and slip away.
As soon as the church is aware that someone in their congregation is living with dementia a Pastoral Care process should start. This should help prevent them from slipping away and ensuring that care and support can be given to their caregiver. Where churches have picked this up early we have been told that the support and fellowship received has made a real difference. This helps to prevent isolation and depression becoming an issue which so often can accompany illness.
It is good to have a Dementia Friend (someone who has been through an Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friend awareness session) person within the church in a key Pastoral role who can pick up anyone diagnosed and help provide support and encouragement to both the person with dementia and their carer. This role needs to help the person living with dementia and their carer stay engaged in the church as well as provide just fellowship and an ear to listen. Sometimes this can even result in finding someone who can provide some practical help to do something as simple as changing a light bulb or cook a meal as the husband/wife may no longer people capable of doing this.
It is also so important to remember the carer (a husband, wife, family member) as they need increased support. They need someone there for them as they could be going through an emotional crisis (see some of our other articles like Pastoral Care for those grieving dementia loss). This person should empathise and not judge. This person needs to be prepared to regularly call or visit and be there for them when they come to church or ensure that a Dementia Friend is available when they do visit. Remember to keep them informed of what is going on in the church, even if someone takes around a weekly news sheet (if your church produces one).
Spiritual support is vital, so it helps to build a team who can visit and can carry out short bible studies, share communion and pray with them. This is especially important in the later stages of dementia when it may become too much to come to church. We need to continue to share the truths of the gospel that we are all living a journey in our lives but our longer-term future is eternal life with Jesus. Remind them that Jesus has promised never to leave us or forsake us, and His Holy Spirit ministers to our spirits in a way that is beyond our comprehension. It is sometimes useful to sing hymns too, but obviously, this depends on what the people visiting are confident in doing.
Dementia has some unique challenges for ministry and we have heard stories where some people have continued to attend church until they have been called home and others where quite early on they have felt they could no longer attend church. The most important thing is that wherever the dementia is taking the individual the church should be there to continue to support, nurture, care and love both the person living with dementia and the carer.