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  • Writer's pictureDonna Marie Vuilleumier

Attending An Interfaith Religious Service for Those Afflicted by Memory Loss

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. ~Galatians 6:10 NRSV


"The church has the unique opportunity – even responsibility – to minister to the needs of people who are suffering from neurological cognitive disorders, as well as the families and medical professionals who care for them."

~Retired Methodist Bishop Ken Carder



It’s so wonderful to see you!

We’re so glad you are here!

Welcome!


Vans from the memory care units of different nursing care facilities arrive at a church for the monthly religious service for those afflicted by memory loss. Rotating through different churches around the county over the course of a year, residents with Alzheimer’s or related disorders are able to attend a worship service tailored to their abilities. As an interfaith service more opportunities for welcome, connection and inclusion are offered.

Assisted by staff members and a group of committed volunteers, residents are escorted from their vans and into the place of worship where greetings abound. Walkers are put aside as people are settled into a pew, and there is a gathering space for those using wheelchairs. Brightly colored bulletins are provided which some residents use to read along and perhaps remember the ones they had in their home church or temple. Regardless of someone’s faith tradition there will be some familiar worship elements as it is a time of Scripture, prayers, hymns and spiritual care in a sacred space. After the service fellowship continues with a luncheon and social time.

I was blessed and fortunate to be able to attend one of these worship services in September 2023 as a guest of Alzheimer’s Orange County. The service that day was at the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Beach, CA. There were residents and staff members from four different nursing facilities attending. The number varies each month, and sometimes there are individuals and caregivers from the community as well. Helping to escort some of the 38 people into the church meant an opportunity to greet them and to experience a wide range of personalities and stages of dementia. Some were excited and happy to be coming to a worship service, some were unable to be aware of just where and why they were there. Some looked around at the church grounds and the architecture of the sanctuary while others stared ahead. Some were mostly looking forward to lunch over an hour away.

Coming from a nearly 200-year-old small New England traditional Protestant white clapboard church and into this Southern California large, modern style rotunda sanctuary with a vaulted ceiling and angled pews, my awareness of the physical differences helped to give me a hint of the disorientation some of the people may have been feeling. It was familiar, and yet it was not, but it truly a safe and sacred place.

As the service was about to begin one of the worshippers was not having a good day. I offered to sit in the back pew with him so that he could still be present but at a quieter distance. This worked so well he even leaned against me and dozed off for part of the service.

The organist’s prelude was the beloved and familiar Amazing Grace. Such a part of Christian DNA, many people were singing along whether or not they were following along the lyrics in their bulletin or from an old memory. The traditional Faith of Our Fathers followed as the entrance hymn. The priest greeted everyone and led us in an opening prayer. Three short Scripture passages followed, including the gospel lesson from John that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares immensely and lovingly for all of his sheep. His brief message was an assurance of the hope and comfort we know through our Good Shepherd.

What I believed to be the most amazing part of the service was something I certainly did not expect to have happened. For the time of the pastoral prayer, the priest and an assistant went to each worshipper and offered a special blessing. One by one we were each reminded that we are seen and beloved by God for who we are. My sleeping pewmate was blessed that he may continue to know God’s calming peace and presence.

After the blessings we shared in the Lord’s Prayer as different versions of ‘trespasses’ and ‘debts’ made for a unique harmony. A closing prayer, the benediction, and the ever-hopeful hymn Let There Be Peace on Earth concluded our time of worship.

We did not share in Communion during the worship service, but we did move from the sanctuary to the church hall for lunch and a social time, for true table fellowship. A volunteer pianist played familiar and favorite songs as we all enjoyed our meal together. After everyone had eaten it became a more festive party atmosphere as most of us created a truly one-of-a-kind Conga line that included wheelchairs and walkers.

When it was time, the memory care residents and staff boarded their vans and returned to their nursing facilities with plans to attend the next month’s service.

It was indeed a privilege and an honor to attend this worship service as I wished there were more opportunities everywhere for this to be the spiritual care opportunity for all those with some form of memory loss to enjoy and benefit from.

One of the largest unchurched groups in our country is a demographic who would not choose to be without their church community, and that is those who are living with Alzheimer’s/dementia. It is not unusual for people who are living with dementia to stop attending church as they or their caregivers become self-conscious about the inevitable changes in behavior, strength, abilities, and appearance. There is concern and anxiety that the once active and vital person known by the congregation is not the same, and the beloved and familiar patterns of worship and church life become lost in a fog of sounds and activity. Yet faith communities can offer a welcome and loving range of spiritual and emotional support as well as the familiar rhythms of church life, serving as a place of safety, welcome, dignity, and belonging. The faith community at its best is able to receive the gifts and spiritual lessons that come from living in the world of Alzheimer’s/dementia. Retired Methodist bishop and Alzheimer’s advocate Kenneth Carder encourages the relationships and opportunities in these words, “Remember them as God remembers them.” We remember, honor, and join with them not in what they have lost, but in what they can still do, and who they still are. God, who knit us together in the womb and knows all the days that were formed for us before any of them existed, remembers us and journeys with us each of those days. God knows and remembers each one of us, never losing sight of the path set before us, come what may.

Including those with memory impairment as fully as possible into the life and ministry of the church is to continue to live out the good news of the gospel as a community of faith. This inclusion also offers an affirmation of the individual’s faith participation prior to this season in their life. How has this person been connected to the life of the congregation? Over time, did they serve on different committees, ad hoc, or interest groups? What was their passion? Did they sing in the choir, serve as a deacon or on the vestry, attend bible study, or teach Sunday School? Connecting their past interests with their current and changing abilities is the work of the Spirit and creativity. While their involvement will be scaled back and evolving, it can still be intentional for a long time.

Inclusion welcomes who this person was, is, and will be, as a loving affirmation. For the congregation who experiences first-hand the behavior changes, the decline of abilities, the loss of memory, the struggle to find words, and the shuffling gait, it can be difficult to watch. There is a grief in losing who this person has been. Yet there can be such joy and love shared by creating this unique time together. For the person living with Alzheimer’s /dementia, the emotions and the lingering feelings of peace, calm, safety, and contentment, will last beyond the activity.

The reassuring words of a beloved Scripture passage, the heart-touching bliss of a favorite hymn, the feeling of grace at the Communion table, the beautiful joy of Christmas Eve candlelight, the awareness of our own mortality on Ash Wednesday, or the bold celebration of Easter morning, are only some of the emotional experiences that are a part of our worshipping life together. When we gather for worship, we do so to offer praise and gratitude to God, to pray with and for others, as we were created to do as we “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor” (Psalm 29:1-2). While we have made worship an intellectual and rational event through our theologies and liturgies, we cannot overlook the essential emotional impact for any of us at any time. The emotional connection of worship is not only critical for those living with Alzheimer’s/ dementia, it is always a profound aspect of worship and it remains as the disease progresses.

Offering adapted worship services for those living with memory loss is a perfect opportunity to be attentive to their strengths and abilities as old, deep-seated memories and emotions are awakened. The words, rituals, and cadence of familiar Scripture, hymns, and prayers evoke welcome and belonging as worship honors God and our lifelong need to feel loved, valued, and connected to God.



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