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  • Writer's pictureDonna Marie Vuilleumier

Congregational Support—Practical Tips for Faith Communities



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 person, and the beloved and familiar patterns of worship and church life become lost in a fog of a variety of sounds and activity. Yet faith communities are able to offer a welcome and loving wide range of spiritual and emotional support as well as the familiar rhythms of church life, church seasons, and a church home, while continuing to be a place of safety, welcome, dignity, and belonging, of interaction on a human level. The faith community is able and blessed to receive the gifts of more time together and the unique 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 the 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 purpose and the path set before us come what may.


The church is already in a distinct place in lives and in communities as people of different generations gather for worship, fellowship, ministries, and activities. Together the church hears and lives the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, and serves with one another. Here is where many have known each other for years, perhaps decades, and have shared in one another’s joys and sorrows, prayers, and life passages. This is a faithful foundation to build upon when it is time to minister to a member—a friend—of the church who is living with Alzheimer’s/dementia or to family members who have become caregivers. Faith communities also are now one of the few places in our western culture living in which intergenerational relationships are a common and shared experience and there are ways to be together across the whole spectrum of life. Bonds, relationships, and shared values long established inspire, encourage, and motivate the necessary calm, presence, and compassion for all involved.


The church is called to take the idea of “a spiritual home” as far as it can go, welcoming in, welcoming back, one who has lived in this home, worshipped, and celebrated with others in the church family, worked for the church, the building, the community, and the mission fields.

The relationship is changed and changed again by the disease process, yet we see, love, touch, affirm, pray with and pray for, those in our midst who will not remember being with us but will surely linger in the feelings, the emotions, with which we have embraced them.


The greatest gift a church can offer is to meet the spiritual needs of someone on the journey while also recognizing and receiving the gifts of one who has truly learned to live in the moment, to provide emotional connections that last beyond the time together. We reach out to their soul. Here is where the faith practices that are rooted in procedural memory flourish and thrive as old and beloved hymns are sung, as favorite and familiar Scripture passages and prayers are heard, as Communion bread and wine once again are tasted.   


In the United States, there is also a distinctive position for faith communities as the median age of members is about a decade above the average age of the adult population. As dementia impacts one out of ten people aged sixty-five and above, there is a clear call to learn about the diseases of memory loss and to care for those with dementia and for their caregivers. This growing trend of both the aging of our congregations and the onset patterns connected to ages is a clear, clarion call for denominations and congregations to understand the process and impact, the needs and the abilities, through the eyes and heart of the gospel. The Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) and Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are now often the largest demographic in a congregation, with Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1979) following behind. Statistically, many who are now a part of the caring of the congregation will one day come into the care of the congregation. It is a blessing and a ministry for congregations to become more experienced, knowledgeable, and capable in remembering as God remembers.

 

Practical Tips for Faith Communities

This ministry begins in the sanctuary through prayers, awareness, and presence. For those known to be at home or in a care facility who are living with memory loss and are no longer visibly present in the church, holding them in prayer and other forms of outreach, visits, and connection, continues to hold their place in the congregation. They and their loved ones and caregivers are present in spirit and in the collective memory of the congregation.



For those who are still able to attend worship or other gatherings in the life of the church, there are many opportunities and ways to be the Church, to reflect the love of God, the peace of Jesus Christ, and the light of the Holy Spirit, in ways that are rich, meaningful, helpful, hopeful, affirming, and attentive.


For the members of the congregation, these are opportunities to provide loving support through meals provided, errands run, and the offering of respite care, so that the caregiver can rest and have time away to be renewed and refreshed. There are also opportunities to connect with others in the broader community, to participate in activities and in learning experiences. The church is embedded into the neighborhood, the community, and so has both the privilege and the responsibility of reaching out.


Faith communities, however, are not just providers of love, care, and support, as they are also receivers of more time with those they have known as the journey takes them back to earlier times shared. So often, the ones who are living with dementia are the ones who have for years—for decades—shared their time, talent, and treasure as leaders, volunteers, and committed members. It is a gift and honor to serve them, care for them, support them, be present with them, and advocate for them in this closing chapter of their life. For all that dementia takes from someone, the ability to give and receive love remains.

 

Care Begins with Awareness

Providing spiritual care and advocacy for those living with Alzheimer’s/dementia and their caregivers starts with awareness and attention. Congregational and pastoral care begin with knowing who is in need and who is at risk. This may be through a small, concerned, educated group in the congregation or through a congregational dementia coordinator.


Who is known to have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s/dementia? Who is aging, showing some signs of memory loss and confusion and is no longer as active or present as they once were? Who from the congregation has moved to a nursing care facility? What are their living situations? What support might they and their caregivers need and want?


This information can be found through prayer concerns raised, or anecdotally from conversations, direct reports, and noticing who has stopped attending. Following up through phone calls, emails, and in-person visits creates opportunities see what needs are present and to offer what is supportive. It is not unusual for support to be declined initially out of concern for being perceived as needy, a burden, or different from who has been known, but time and encouragement can help break down that wall. Gentle invitations and outreach to the caregiver create a consistent and sincere message of welcome.

 

Education for an Informed and Confident Congregation

Being knowledgeable about the disease processes of Alzheimer’s/dementia, the evolving needs, and how to interact in ways that are caring, loving, and supportive, create an informed, competent, and confident congregation. There are many ways to learn about the disease process and how people are impacted over the course of the journey.


Speakers from local nursing homes and assisted living facilities with memory care units, nurses, chaplains, and social workers from hospitals, hospices, and community medical care, representatives from a local Alzheimer’s Association, and Alzheimer’s/dementia caregivers and advocates, are able to provide initial and ongoing education. Connecting with other churches that are already actively involved in ministry to and with those on the journey, are a valuable resource for ideas, experiences and problem-solving.


There are many valuable online resources that provide education, links, and directories, including:

Dementia Friendly Congregations

 

Alzheimer’s Association

 

Memory Cafés

 

There are also many books available to guide a congregation’s education and ministry, including:

Vuilleumier, Donna Marie. Always With You: The Comfort of Spirituality for Those Living in the World of Dementia. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2025,

Angelica, Jade C. Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer's Disease. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014.

Berry, Kathy. When Words Fail: Practical Ministry to People with Dementia and Their Caregivers. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2018.

Carder, Kenneth L. Ministry With the Forgotten: Dementia Through a Spiritual Lens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019.

Morgan, Richard, and Jane Marie Thibault. No Act of Love is Ever Wasted: The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia. Nashville: Upper Room, 2009.


The learning opportunities for a congregation can be opened to the community as well to broaden the reach, the impact, and the support possibilities. There will be people who have been navigating this on their own, or with limited assistance, and will greatly benefit from the church’s ministry and outreach.

 

Inclusion Lives Out the Good News

Including those with memory impairment into the fullest life and ministry of the church is to continue to live out the good news of the gospel together while also being the way to offer the most unique, creative, and personalized affirmation of the individual person’s faith practices and activities in the church 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, attend a bible study, or teach a Christian Education program? Connecting their past interests, passions, and experiences 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 present for a long time.

Inclusion welcomes who this person was, is, and will be, as a loving, attentive affirmation. It holds onto time and relationship longer as it is also an emotional connection. For the congregation who first-hand experiences the behavior changes, the decline of abilities, the loss of memory, the struggle to find words, and the shuffling gait, it can be hard to see this unfold. 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 that activity.

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