Ministering to people with dementia

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: caring for people with dementia.

NICK EICHER, HOST: You’re probably most familiar with Alzheimer’s Disease, but it’s just one of many maladies under the category of dementia. It’s a catch-all term that covers medical conditions that diminish a patient’s mental and physical abilities over time. Right now at least 5 million Americans live with some form of dementia.

But researchers predict that number is going to triple by the year 2050. That’s important to know, because that rate of increase is greater than the projected increase in the elderly population. So the concentration is growing.

REICHARD: And caring for loved ones with dementia is hard. And that presents an opportunity for Christians to help both patients and caregivers.

WORLD Magazine national editor Jamie Dean wrote about this in a cover story for the magazine. Now, you may know someone personally affected by dementia, and you’ll want to read Jamie’s story.

And she’s here now. So Jamie, let me ask you this: You note in your story that it’s not something churches address that much. How should churches be talking about it?

DEAN: I think it begins with seeing all the issues surrounding aging and dying as a critical part of a robust and a complete pro-life ethic. We’re very rightly concerned about the very beginning of life, and we should also be concerned to speak to what happens at the end of life – and how we care for people made in the image of God with dignity and value until the moment of their death, no matter what that process might involve for some people.

REICHARD: What does that look like practically?

DEAN: I think it begins with simply not forgetting the people who are becoming forgetful themselves. I spoke with Benjamin Mast, who is a dementia researcher at the University of Louisville, and he’s also an evangelical Christian. He wrote a helpful book about dementia called Second Forgetting.

He’s spent years talking with dementia patients and the families who are caring for them. And he said he often heard about how some churches do tend to forget the church members who can’t make it to worship anymore. And that can be particularly painful for the caregivers.

REICHARD: So how can churches be reaching out to dementia patients and their families?

DEAN: I spoke with a handful of people caring for loved ones with dementia, and they mentioned several things.

One very practical thing I hadn’t thought about is the need for family restrooms in churches. If a wife is still able to bring her husband to worship on Sundays, she might face a dilemma if he needs to go to the restroom. More than one person told me this simple logistical issue had been the thing that stopped caregivers from bringing loved ones to church.

So that’s one practical consideration. Caregivers also need simple relief: They need to run errands, they need to go to church after their loved one can’t go anymore, and they often just need a break.

Sometimes they need company. More than one caregiver said this is such an isolating disease for both the patient and the loved ones. So being sensitive to the need for simple fellowship is helpful.

REICHARD: What about ministries like support groups? Are those out there?

DEAN: More churches are doing this now, especially as the number of people facing the disease grows. One caregiver said she found it so helpful to find that kind of support from fellow Christians. She had gone to a secular support group in a nearby town, and she said the only thing they had in common was the disease that they were all grappling with. But in the church she’s found it so comforting to be able to pray with others and talk about this within a biblical context.

REICHARD: What about ministry to dementia patients themselves?

DEAN: I think this was one of the most compelling things to consider. Benjamin Mast talks about how God has given all Christians very simple, common means of grace to draw close to Him: Things like prayer, Bible reading, singing hymns, taking communion.

And Mast said these simple practices can often be the route into the memories of people with dementia. They often remember hymns. They remember familiar Bible verses. They often understand you’re praying for them.

So I think it’s really poignant that the same means of grace that God gives us to remember Him when we’re so spiritually forgetful are the same things He uses to draw near to believers who are physically forgetful. And of course, that’s because He never forgets us. …  

So whether you’re directly caring for someone with dementia or not, don’t underestimate the value of nursing home ministries and visits, even if people may not remember them later. In the moment it can be like a cup of cold water to someone in a very dry desert. And you may never realize how much that might mean to them.

REICHARD: Jamie is national editor for WORLD Magazine. Jamie, thank you.

DEAN: You’re welcome.

(Craig Litten/Genesis) Kim Mitchell talks with her mother at a memory care facility in Bonita Springs, Fla. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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