How to lead a Bible study for elders with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

You’ll find numerous Bible study guides on this site, but you may still have questions about how to do it, especially if you’ve never led a Bible study before.

Whenever I tell people that I lead Bible studies for people with dementia, I always get a slightly puzzled look and a pause while people think about how to ask their question without sounding insensitive:

“How in the world does that work?”

I understand the confusion. After all, so many people with dementia have lost part or all of their language ability, not to mention significant cognitive capacity. Without these basic functions, how can you expect to have a group discussion about a biblical text, complete with theological principles, that follows a storyline or poetic structure?

First of all: Relax

The main thing in leading a Bible study with a group of elders with dementia is: Go with the flow. Remember that this is about personal interaction with one another, not hammering in a biblical point. You don’t even have to make it through the whole passage.

Your goal is that people would feel encouraged and loved by you and by God. Your attendees likely won’t remember the text by the time you’ve finished the closing prayer, but they may well have a lingering sense of God’s presence, enjoying people’s company, and feeling affirmed as contributors in a group. And I truly believe that the Holy Spirit ministers to people with dementia in ways we can’t imagine.

What kind of Bible passages work best?

I tend to stick to the New Testament, especially the Gospels and some of St. Paul’s instructions to the early churches, which brim with practical encouragements on how to treat people and how to cling to God. Many of the Psalms also work beautifully, with deep truths expressed in heartfelt language. (Gideon’s Bibles include only the New Testament and Psalms.)

I don’t suggest tackling the Book of Revelation or anything that’s super confusing, scary, or harsh. My groups have often discussed suffering, hardship, and guilt, because these are universal experiences. (The questions “who here has led a perfect life?” and “who here has never had any problems?” always get a laugh.) But for people with dementia, I think it’s important to focus on God’s comfort, forgiveness, and promises of love and eternal presence.

How to encourage with your words

When people with dementia speak, always use validation, not correction. If someone says they’re looking for their mother, don’t tell them their mom is dead; affirm their love for their mom. If someone answers a question or bursts in with nonsensical “word salad,” simply nod and affirm any single word you may hear. For example:

  • “That’s right, Marge, mothers are so important to us and to God! And God often acts in a motherly way, caring for us no matter what.”
  • “Thanks for that good word about ‘together,’ Frank. I’m so glad we’re all here together with you today.”
  • “Yes, George, blankets keep us warm and cozy, don’t they? It’s good to know God is taking care of us.”

One phrase I use a lot when I have absolutely no idea what the person said:

  • “That works for me, Sherrie! Thanks!”

or, if the person is a little agitated:

  • “Well, you know, Lou Ann, we all do the best we can.” (This almost always gets a grudging nod of agreement.)

Avoid asking directly, “Do you remember …?” Try to evoke long-term memories with open-ended statements and then wait for responses. For example:

  • “I wonder who heard this story of the Good Samaritan in their Sunday School classes when they were little…” (Wait for others to chime in; if it seems helpful, encourage any recollections with more questions, such as “What was your teacher like?”)

How to progress through a Bible passage

These Bible studies are designed to go verse by verse, sometimes almost word by word, to avoid tackling too big of a chunk of text. If any of your participants are able to read, ask them to read aloud; be prepared to stop them at the point where you want to start discussing (“excellent, you can stop right there; thank you!”).

For many passages, I’ve included a bit of background information, for two reasons:

  1. Some participants may not be Bible believers, but they are interested in the Bible as a historical document. Tying in ancient customs, notes about when and where the text was written, the biography of the writer, etc., makes this time more interesting to them. You want anyone and everyone to feel welcome in the group.
  2. You can use this background info to set up the story; for example, Mary’s situation (young, scared, pregnant) before she proclaimed her Magnificat.

As you go through the study questions, feel free to repeat the verse just before asking the question:

  • “[reading from the Good Samaritan:] ‘The priest passed by on the other side of the road.’ So what did the priest do? Why do you think he did that?”

But don’t be too quick to answer questions yourself — remember, this time is about interacting on a personal level, not didactic teaching.

And don’t feel that you have to stick to the script! I think it’s great to amplify the passage however you like — use hand motions, show pictures or maps, stand up and mime an action (like the father running to greet the prodigal son). Or if someone wants to tell a story that the passage jogged in their memory, encourage it. Maybe someone worked on a farm when they were younger — they might know exactly what it means to take care of sheep. Or maybe someone lost their wedding ring at one point — they know how it feels to search and search for something that’s lost.

At the same time, it’s best if any one person doesn’t end up dominating the discussion (especially repeatedly). Sometimes people launch into long speeches that hijack the group interaction, so you’ll need to practice how to politely (almost imperceptibly) interrupt them and redirect. Have a next-question (or two) in mind before you redirect, so the ensuing conversation immediately has a place to go.

  • “You know, thank you for those thoughts, John, and I’m wondering who else has a thought about what a shepherd is like? What does a shepherd actually do?”

Thanks be to God

And let me just say how grateful I am to Jesus Christ for teaching so often with stories. The parables of Jesus remain fantastic and engaging to this day, even for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. He often used simple, understandable, everyday situations and events — farmers, trees, birds, money, lost things, found things, outrageous characters — to communicate profound truths about the kingdom of God and the nature of the Father.

I’d love to hear your questions, ideas, and thoughts too; send me a note or post a comment below.

Peace be with you,

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photo credit: amanky Day 442: Precious via photopin (license)

6 thoughts on “How to lead a Bible study for elders with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

  1. Peaceful Prayers says:

    My dear husband sat on the edge of his seat the deeper the Bible commentary I read…the Truth gets through, as a friend said, “God is emptying him so He can fill him.”

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  2. Jennie Zugajev says:

    Thanks for these great resources, Elisa. I have been leading a Bible Study on Monday afternoons at a residential aged care facility in NSW (Australia) for just over a year. I would sometimes struggle to try to decide what I should prepare and at what level for my residents (we have between 10-16 people, depending on the day.
    You have made my preparations so much easier (I am going through the Psalms at the moment). I don’t usually do the whole study that you’ve written, but I use it as a guide – and yes, there is ad-libbing and a lot of responding to ‘off-topic’ comments, Other weeks, some of our most quiet and withdrawn residents have wonderful moments of clarity, and feel happy and encouraged to contribute (our Chaplain and Pastoral Carer are fully aware that ‘my studies’ are not mine, as I direct them to your website)

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    • Elisa Bosley says:

      Jennie, I’m so grateful for this feedback! Your approach is perfect — use whatever works as a guide and respond in the moment 🙂 I cannot count the number of “wonderful moments of clarity,” as you say, among residents–that’s what convinced me in the first place that this care is so needed and valuable. Thank you for writing and for blessing your elders, and please keep me posted if you think of other resources that would help. (I’m getting ready to develop some new Bible studies as soon as the final hymn downloads are uploaded.)

      Like

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