Sam has dementia, what can we do that still involves her/him in church?

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Keeping someone engaged in the church family through services, activities and groups is so important. It gives them a real sense of belonging and community, where many living with dementia sadly move towards isolation and loneliness impacting not only them but also their primary carer who is often a husband, wife or family member.

This goes beyond just welcoming them at services but tries to keep them engaged throughout their illness within the body of the church. The activities they will be able to do will depend on their dementia and general health. But, this never means that there is no place for them in your church or community.

Anything that they do should be appropriate to the person and reflect their previous and present involvements and interests within the church. If they have always helped with tea and coffee try and find ways that they can continue to help with tea and coffee, even if they only add the milk for people after the coffee has been poured.

If they have always helped with the gardening or keeping the graveyard tidy, support them to carry on. It may be a good idea for the person to have their own patch. Weeding, trimming lawn edges, sweeping paths and general tidying can all be tasks many people with dementia can cope with. However, make sure they don’t use any electric/petrol potentially dangerous tools.

A person’s identity is in part tied up with what they do.

If Sam has always been in the church kitchen cooking, that is where she loves to be. She loves the buzz, companionship of the small team and being able to serve food. She may not still have the full ability to plan, cook and serve meals for the lunch club by herself but, she can still help peel the potatoes, mix the stuffing, mash the potatoes and lay the tables. This gives her independence and maintains her identity. As long as those in the kitchen with her understand her limitations and her illness this becomes a joy.

Try to be patient and allow more time for them or break the task down and give them a small part to complete with someone else supporting (e.g. give them some potatoes to peel whilst someone else also peels potatoes to ensure they are ready on time). To help the person through a task you may have to help with all the different stages by prompting them. But when they complete this task they will feel a real sense of achievement.

Always be aware of the person’s abilities and make sure they are still able to cope with them physically. Anything they do in the church should be positive and enjoyable and their abilities will change as the disease progresses.

Routine and continuity are important to those living with dementia. Being allowed to carry on with everyday activities for as long as possible will not only help the person hold on to these skills and encourage independence but will allow them to feel able to contribute and know that their help is valued. This sense of purpose and well-being will also help to ensure the person is less agitated and anxious.

Any activities you put on don’t need to be particularly structured or complicated. In fact, some of the best ways of helping the person with dementia remain active and stimulated is to keep them involved in the groups, services and activities that they have always been involved in.

Try and make all older peoples groups dementia friendly by ensuring that at least someone in the groups is a Dementia Friend, having been through an Alzheimer’s Society awareness session. These sessions only take about an hour and really help people to understand dementia as a disease and how to help them live well.

For someone who is living with dementia to be able to continue to attend church groups and activities is of so much value and can help:

· to prevent frustration, boredom and challenging behaviours

· improve their self esteem

· improve their quality of life

· the person maintain independence

· help maintain skills

· often compensate for lost abilities

· provide much needed social contact

· allow the person to express their feelings, whether through worship or prayer (especially singing hymns and worship songs)

Try not to be critical of how the person does things. The main aim is to help the person living with dementia achieve what they are capable of so that they are both stimulated and happy.

Help the person stay involved in church activities. Making sure they can continue to attend if they wants to. It is important for them and their primary carer to be able to keep in touch with friends and maintain a normal routine.

Sometimes dementia can mean that the person living with the disease may display some odd behaviours or say something that someone may find inappropriate. It is more than acceptable to explain to people the person may come into contact with that he or she has dementia (as long as he or she is happy with disclosing this information). You can outline what difficulties they have and, help them understand why their friendship is important and what they can do. Try to do this privately and not whilst the person living with dementia is in earshot.

Remember that the person with dementia will gradually lose the ability to do some tasks as the illness progresses. Each person loses different skills depending on which part of the brain the dementia affects. Try to be aware of these changes and adapt what they do within the church accordingly.

This will reduce the amount of distress and anxiety they feel as their dementia progresses but will also make it easier for the church.

If the person living with dementia eventually feels that they cannot make it to church please don't forget them. They are still part of the church. Try and take communion to them regularly and schedule in pastoral visits. Keep them informed of what's going on and maybe even record a prayer on a smart phone for the church from them and play it during a service.

Always remember Sam is who he/she always was, it is just their ability to do things that has changed.


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