Almost all of us will know someone that is living with a form of dementia. Given the ageing profile of our communities, it is likely that this will become a more common experience. As churches, we want to continue to involve those living with dementia in church life and it is possible to continue to nurture spirituality even where short term memory is impaired and people appear not to be able to participate in worship, reflection and study in a conventional way.
We are aware that a number of churches are offering services and community activities to support people living with dementia and their families, but we also have conversations with many people who are unsure how best to do this for members of their congregation who are finding it hard to participate as they used to, and are aiming to support as many churches as possible in becoming Dementia Friendly.
Christmas is an ideal opportunity to offer intentionally dementia-friendly activities (if we can involve people with dementia in services that are open to all, so much the better), and singing carols and telling the familiar Christmas stories can help unlock happy memories that can be shared together, and allow the person with dementia to fully engage.
Dementia affects short term memory, and as it progresses, can impair perception, speech and motor function. Older memories remain longer than more recent events, and the part of the brain that remains undamaged the longest is the part that deals with emotion, so while someone with dementia may not remember what they did, they will remember how it made them feel. Tapping into happy childhood memories can therefore create something really positive for people, and making small adjustments to, for example, a carol service, can make this experience available to families living with dementia.
So, how do we make our services Dementia Friendly? There are a few simple, practical tips that can make attending less stressful for people with dementia and their carers:
- Have a team to welcome at the door to guide people to seats
- Create clear, large print signage, including simple pictures
- Offer some quiet space available away from the main seating in case anyone becomes agitated
- Place volunteers around the congregation to help support people in following service sheets
- Offer Dementia Friends awareness sessions to all volunteers beforehand
- Invite residents of local care homes and dementia support groups ahead of time
- Choose familiar carols and prayers
- Use visual aids in story-telling – a nativity scene or mime alongside the reading is ideal
- Give space and invite people to share memories of Christmas
- Keep things short, but gently paced – everything slows down with dementia
- Make sure parking and toilets are accessible and well-signed
- Offer refreshments before or after
- Avoid using elaborately patterned cloths/plates/mugs etc for refreshments
- Aim for afternoon services if possible – mornings and evenings can often be difficult times
- Invite and welcome everyone – make the service inclusive for people with dementia, not solely for them – it is always better to make something accessible rather than ‘singling out’.
There is a wealth of resources available for becoming Dementia Friendly, and Communities Together Durham can give support. If you would like to offer more dementia friendly worship, include care homes in pastoral visiting, or explore how you can continue to meaningfully involve people with dementia in your congregation, contact email@example.com. We will also be offering some training, workshops and materials about becoming Dementia Friendly in the new year, and are exploring various models and accreditation schemes– if this is of interest please also get in touch to let us know, and help shape the offer.