National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Making church dementia-friendly

August 2016

by Chris Materne

When you or someone you love is diagnosed with dementia your world changes forever. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to do everyday things.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and typically begins with memory loss. Other types of dementia bring different dysfunctions, but ultimately people with dementia face increasing impairment.

While there is no cure for dementia, neither the rate of decline, nor the trajectory of declining capacities is set in stone or predictable. Drugs may slow the progression of dementia for some people, but these are not always well-tolerated.

There are, however, many things we can do to support people with dementia to ensure they have good quality of life. There is strong evidence that social engagement has positive benefits.

Churches and faith communities provide opportunities to help people with dementia maintain social connections. The rhythm of familiar worship practices can be comforting, while music can have a strong effect that may result in better memory and ability to converse with others (see Heidi Smith’s story, pages 10-11).
Social gatherings and Bible study groups may also be enjoyable for those living with dementia.

People with dementia may not remember activities they have been involved with, but the feelings they experience will remain. There are many small things we can do to make our churches more ‘dementia-friendly’.
For example:

  • Encourage members to wear clearly visible name tags
  • Print off PowerPoint slides as older people may miss having something to hold and read in church
  • Ensure signage is clear and easily recognisable
  • Set up a space a person with dementia can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed
  • Pray for and with people living
    with dementia
  • Ask a person with dementia whether they would fold the church bulletins. This type of contribution can have a powerful impact on
    self-worth
  • Be flexible to help people living with dementia feel supported and encouraged – something that has been enjoyable once may not be on another day.

Dr Chris Materne completed a PhD in 2012 after investigating memory rehabilitation in people living with dementia. She was previously employed at the Flinders Centre for

Ageing Studies at Flinders University and Domiciliary Care, before taking up the role of LCA Church Worker Support Department manager this year.

Stimulating activity ideas

  • Walk on the beach with a person living with dementia, talk about what you can see, hear and feel
  • Have an ice-cream and talk about being a child
  • Play dominoes or Scrabble. It doesn’t matter if you don’t follow the rules – the idea is to have fun!
  • Make a jigsaw puzzle from photos of people important to the person with dementia
  • Look at photos of places they have visited and talk about them
  • Take a drive and look at autumn leaves, full reservoirs, grapes on the vine, Christmas lights …
  • Do some gentle exercise together
  • Do a craft activity – even if they can’t follow a knitting pattern, they may be able to knit squares that could be sewn together as a blanket, or wind wool for another knitter
  • Find out whether a local men’s shed has familiar tools they may enjoy using
  • Go together to a local amateur sporting event
  • Read the newspaper together
  • Listen to music and sing along to favourite songs and hymns
  • Read the Bible or pray together, and start a prayer journal to record what you have been praying about