Mr. Mason was actively involved in his church community. He attended worship and Bible study regularly. If there was an event at the church, Mr. Mason was there. He assisted in many ways. His church community was important to him and had been since he was a child.
When Mr. Mason was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he continued to be involved in his church community. As his Alzheimer’s progressed, members of his church noticed that Mr. Mason was having trouble sitting through the Bible study. Mr. Mason was often confused during Bible study and frustrated at not understanding what was being discussed. He would, at times, wander around the room. During worship, Mr. Mason’s son noticed that Mr. Mason was asking to leave in the middle of the service.
One day, Mr. Mason and his son were met by the pastor of the church at the door. The pastor told Mr. Mason’s son that members of the church decided that Mr. Mason was considered a liability and he was asked not to return.
Mr. Mason did not understand. His son searched for a new congregation. Mr. Mason tried several churches. He found the people to be welcoming, yet for him, these congregations were not his church. In the end, Mr. Mason stopped attending worship.
Mr. Mason is not alone. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in the United Sates, there are 5.7 million people living with dementia and this number is rising. This means that within our families, our neighborhoods, our communities and in our congregations, there are those, like Mr. Mason, who are living with dementia.
For those living with dementia, worship often remains a vital part of the person’s spiritual life. There are ways that churches may create a worship-friendly service and space for those living with dementia and their families.
Music is often one of the best ways for those living with dementia to connect during worship, if music is a part of their tradition. According to Music and Memory, a person’s “musical favorites tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can bring participants back to life, enabling them to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize and stay present."
Connecting with the Divine
During worship, music may be a way for one living with dementia to feel connected to the Divine and to the community. Congregations may provide iPods pre-loaded with familiar hymns at the beginning of worship for those living with dementia. Such technology may allow the person living with dementia to experience the deep emotions connected with their spiritual life. It may also allow for the one living with dementia to feel engaged in the worship experience.
If someone is prone to wandering around the sanctuary during worship, ensure that there are no trip hazards, such as cords and rugs.
Check with the family before providing Communion to one living with dementia. As Alzheimer’s progresses, people living with dementia may experience difficulty swallowing. If one living with dementia is not able to consume the bread and wine, provide them with a blessing.
A few times each year, there are months with a fifth Sunday. Congregations may want to explore creating specialized worship services on those Sundays for those living with dementia, their families and the worshipping community. Such worship services may have several components. Keep them short in length. Twenty to thirty minutes works best. Play the first verse of several well-known hymns at the beginning of the service. Read a short story from scripture and provide a brief message. Lift a prayer familiar within the tradition. The congregation may want to end with a familiar hymn or song. Sharing in a meal after the worship service will allow for further connection and the feeling of abundant life in the worshipping community. Explore what works best. Most importantly, allow the ones living with dementia to feel welcomed and loved.