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 anything that’s super confusing, scary, or harsh. Don’t get me wrong: 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:
- 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.
- 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 other dementias. 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,
19 thoughts on “How to lead a Bible study for elders with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia”
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.”
Thank you for this lovely comment! Yes, God is so very active with ALL of his beloved children.
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)
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.)
Although your post was written several years ago, I’m just discovering not today … right when I need it! Thank you so very much for being here and answering my need. Yesterday my mother told me her spirit was “hungry” but she’s having trouble reading, concentrating and praying. I’m so relieved and excited to have your guidance as we explore what it means to remain faithful disciples through dementia. Thank you.
Oh, hooray! Yvonne, I’m so glad you found the site. Trust me, although the dementia journey is hard, God’s spirit is alive and well in your mom, and that particular truth won’t change. Bless you for your faithful care.
I look forward to utilizing your gifted influence here. I own an AFC home with elderly residents that live with me full time. I desire to provide comfort through increased Biblical influences. This will be a wonderful blessing to us all, I’m sure. Thank you in advance.
Brenda Sue, thank you for your beautiful work! My own grandmother lived in a small home community like yours at the end of her life, and it was such a gift. Please let me know how the Bible study goes and if there’s anything else I might be able to provide for your residents. Blessings.
Just found your post today. November 9, 2020, nine months into the Covid pandemic. I work the emergency room and I found these simple concepts helpful to work with when we get the elderly, now socially isolated, from nursing homes and assisted living and memory care. Thank you for what you have offered.
Susan, I’m so glad you found it and that it’s helpful to you. I’m creating a couple of “cheat sheets” with familiar prayers and scriptures for people to simply read to elders in these times as well, so stay tuned. God bless you for your work on the front lines.
Thank you for this. Can you recommend (or write!) any daily Bible reading notes for mature Christians with dementia. My mother still ‘uses’ the page-per day quite high-level daily reading booklets she has had delivered for years. However we know that this must be increasingly challenging/impossible due to her Alzheimer’s – she is still very literate by instinct but we notice that due to short term memory issues and reduced capacity she now struggles to read a letter of more than a paragraph, or to use a dictionary without forgetting what she was looking for multiple times.
For her stage of still relatively mild dementia, it would be really good if there was a daily readings guide which included a short (4-5 sentences max perhaps) Bible passage printed in full, not just where to find it; and a paragraph of notes about the passage; including discussion and prompts for thought and prayer as usual – easy to read but not ‘babyish’ in content. She has been a devoted Christian for 70 years and a minister’s wife for over 60 years. Resources which explain the basics to readers who are new to the faith and/or unfamiliar with the Bible seem a total mismatch. And a ‘1 inspirational verse per day’ gift book doesn’t fulfil the same function. However, she does need the content to be a manageable length and presented simply.
Wow! Heather, this is a fantastic suggestion. I wish I could meet your mother; she sounds amazing and I love that you’re seeking ways to help her continue to connect with her deep faith. I would love to hear more details about what would work for her. Does she typically use a printed product (book), or is she getting daily emails, or some other delivery? If you’re willing, I’d love to write up an example or two; would you be willing to review them and let me know if I’m on the right track? If so, please connect with me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Heather, I hope you see this reply! I’ve been working on creating some devotions, but I’ve also been searching around and finally came across some devotional materials that are, in my opinion, beautifully suited to people living with dementia. They’re created by HammondCare, a Christian organization in Australia. They sent me some sample pages, each of which appears to contain a single Bible verse (or hymn lyrics), a single reflection paragraph (not on every sample I got), a simple prayer, and a beautiful picture. I think the “Yesterday, Today, Forever” book might be best but I’m thinking of buying the whole set 🙂 Here’s their shop for faith-based materials: https://shop.hammond.com.au/collections/faith-for-life
I decided to use Mark 5’s story of the woman who’d been bleeding for 12 years for my Bible studies this week on 3 different units, and thought to see if you had that as a Bible study. I just love your questions about how long it might have taken the woman to tell Jesus “the whole truth” of her 12 year experience, and whether or not he interrupted her. I’d never thought about that before. What a rich set of questions for me to ponder, let alone ask others. I can’t wait for my first Mark 5 Bible study tomorrow. In addition for encouraging our residents to trust that we can tell our whole story to God, and seek God for help/healing, I’m also going to point out that it’s okay for residents to advocate for their own needs here at the care center. Thanks.
Wow, that is great to hear! That passage is one of my personal favorites. It was one of the first ones I did with elders with dementia, and at the end one of the participants (who I thought had slept through the whole study) “came alive” and began praising Jesus for the life and love he gave to that woman. And I love your idea of encouraging residents to tell their stories/needs where they live, too! Bless you.
I have been involved with assisted living and Memory care devotions for about three years. I always feel that I haven’t done enough for these folks, esp. Mem. Care, in helping the remember good times in Bible Studies/ Church. Most often they seem a long way off. How does God use what they hear and does He bring it to their consciousness when they need it. We sing old hymns and songs too. The Chaplain doesn’t seem to have much real compassion for these folks so I try to get a few words in nearly every time we meet. Gerald
Gerald, trust me, you are doing more than you know. Even if these dear elders seem a long way off, I assure you, God’s Spirit is active in them — and you are the vessel. The songs, in particular, are powerful; research has even shown that the area of the brain responsible for music memory remains largely untouched throughout the course of dementia (isn’t that amazing?!). Thank you for your humble service — it truly matters.