What I learned about Dementia and faith

I recently co-ordinated the Dementia and Faith 2016 Symposium, which was hosted by ARV in conjunction with the ARV Foundation and the Centre for Ministry Development.

It was, somewhat surprisingly, an unqualified success! I say that because what began as a tentative “testing of the waters” – a gathering together those with an interest in thinking deliberately about a Christian response to the challenge of dementia – quickly turned into a tidal wave of interest.

So much so that the 600 places were booked out, and I have spoken to so many people who said they wanted to come but just didn’t buy their ticket in time, I think we could have had several hundred more.

Some have said to me that we should have anticipated this. If that is true, then mea culpa I guess. Now that I have seen it, I am incredibly encouraged and thankful to God. And here’s why.

My own story with the impact on my family of cognitive decline is a very personal one, and I am not going to share it here. But what I have been struck by since I started to get word out about Dementia and Faith 2016 is how many people have a similar story. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. A quick glance at the Alzheimer's Australia website reveals why. 

First thing to note: 3 in 10 people over 85 have dementia. So if I am speaking to someone in the age bracket of say 50-65 (there are lots of these in our churches and workplaces!) and they have 2 parents in their 80’s, then there is more than 50% chance one of those parents has dementia. That is just parents. Now consider: aunts and uncles, close family friends, and for the next age bracket down, grandparents, great-aunts etc. It is little wonder that dementia is so very close to home for so many people I speak to. Your church, your workplace, your neighborhood, will be the same.

If you are a minister or church leader reading this, let me just give that another dimension. 3 out of 10 of your parishioners in their mid eighties plus will have dementia. “Phew,” you say, “we don’t have many people in our church in their mid-eighties, so we’re all good”. Really? So, where are they? Some may have moved away or into residential care, but not all (even if they are in care, I bet they would still like to be included). Some may have moved churches to one that caters for them better… but that’s unlikely.

They just don’t come anymore because there are so many barriers as people get older. Especially if they have dementia! Does that mean we, at church, are off the hook? Is it our job to minister only to the ones who turn up? I am not sure God would see it that way. These are faithful saints who have been part of your congregation for 20? 40? 60 years? More even? Of course they would love to still come. In fact, studies show over and over that participation in church, and the familiar and deeply spiritually significant acts of singing, praying and hearing God’s word read and (appropriately) taught, are what people with dementia – especially those who grew up with such things – desperately need and benefit from incalculably. 

The second thing that hits me about these dementia statistics is the numbers involved in dementia care. Just short of 400,000 people with dementia, but some 1.2 million involved in care. Wow! What does that tell you? Well, compared to other diseases, like cancer or heart disease, dementia becomes incredibly debilitating, ultimately requiring a very high level of care, and this continues over a long period of time. Thereby involving a lot of people in care – day in day out, year in year out. 

How can we, the church of God, help? Lots of ways! But for one thing – and lets start with the really low hanging fruit first – I believe many (most?) carers who would love to be able to bring their loved ones to church. They know how much it means to them. But are our services accessible (dementia friendly)? Are our buildings adequate (walker and wheelchair accessible)? And are our congregations open to it? 

There are multiple benefits if we can help enable church attendance. (1) We can bless the person with dementia enormously. (2) We can demonstrate the love of Jesus to their carer/s who would embrace our concern for their loved one (and for them!) with open arms. We are well tuned-in to the idea that by reaching kids and youth in our schools and communities we can also reach their un-churched parents. Can I suggest by caring for the elderly as we ought, we have a chance to reach their un-churched adult children too? And here is a benefit you may not have thought of immediately: (3) By including those with dementia in our church life as much as we possibly can, we (both as individuals and the community of God’s people) will learn from them and be blessed by them.

This wont be easy, but it wont be as hard as you think either (and ARV can help you!). We go to some lengths to make our churches work for kids and families – and rightly so. I think we can – and we must! – ensure they work for those living with dementia and cognitive decline too.

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