Dementia Friendly Churches & Communities

If you have been reading the newspapers or listening to the news recently it will have been hard to miss the message that we are an aging society. By 2050 it is expected that one in four people will be over 65 years old. For many of us aging will include the real­ity of dementia, either as a person living with or journeying alongside another with this condition.Dementia Action Alliance

There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, with rates predicted to rise with the aging trends. Although the likelihood of developing dementia increases with age, it is not an inevitable part of aging and it can also affect younger people. The label 'dementia' describes a range of symptoms that may develop over a number of years. This will usually include problems with memory; however there are other common symptoms such as difficulties with concentrating, problem-solving, speech, perception or movement. The word 'dementia' is often used synonymously with 'Alzheimer’s disease' which, although the most common, is just one of several types of dementia. Other types include vascular dementia, Lewy-body disease and fronto-temporal lobe dementia. The gradual progression through dementia involves a series of losses in one’s mental abilities which can make it increasingly hard to stay connected to the present moment, communicate one's needs and maintain the activities that support spiritual well-being.

Sadly, within our all too frantic and 'youth-centric' culture, living well with dementia remains a challenge. Stigma and lack of understanding can lead to isolation for those experiencing or caring for someone with dementia. All too often in the media we see stories of poor or abusive care, lack of support for carers and continued debates around issues of assisted dying. Regular updates from dementia research suggest that for the time being the pharmacological magic bullet remains out of reach. What we can be confident of however, is that within a supportive community where the person's identiy and unique needs are understood and supported, people affected by dementia can continue to lead rewarding and contributing lives.

This raises important questions for the church. How do we continue to share a fulfilling and meaningful Christian relationship when our friend no longer remembers our friendship? How can congregations welcome and include members with progressive memory loss who may feel overwhelmed by usual church activities? How can we support those who are isolated as they care for someone with dementia? How might we share the gospel and show the transforming love of Christ with those with dementia who have never known him before? These questions are crucial to the mission and identity of the church. As John McFadden beautifully explains:

“As Christians we have a different story to tell about what gives our lives worth, value and meaning. Personhood is not defined solely by our corporal bodies or our cognitive abilities, but rather by our relationships with others. And we are creatures created in the divine image not because we physically or intellectually re­semble the Almighty One, but because God remains in faithful relationship with us in all circumstances and conditions. God’s goodness can be experienced within the reality of cognitive loss.... Some question whether persons with dementia can continue to live their faith if they are no longer able to remember God. They can, because faith is not dependent upon individual memories or cognitive ability. If we should forget God, God will not forget us. And if we forget God, our community of faith can remember us to God and bring God’s presence into our lives through means that do not require us to grasp that presence cognitively"

The information within these pages has been compiled by members of the South Yorkshire Churches Dementia Group. We are an ecumenical group who meet bimonthly to explore ways of increasing the profile of dementia within the local church, and to develop a faith network that can share their experience in this area of ministry.There are many things that churches can do to become 'dementia friendly' and the resources here will hopefully give you some ideas. If you would like any further information, if you would like to get involved or if you have a positive story to share we would love to hear from you.

Dr Gemma Graham (gemma.graham5@hotmail.com)

Therese Paskell (therese.paskell@gmail.com)