Why — and how — to lead a memory-care worship service

For many people now in eldercare settings, worshipping in community on Sunday was an inviolate tradition. It simply wouldn’t be Sunday without going to church!

God is faithful to meet elders — like the rest of us — exactly where they’re at. I believe that deep calls to deep (Psalm 42) as the Spirit communes with seniors’ souls in ways we cannot see or even imagine, ministering to their hearts and minds in ways both profound and personal.

Beyond spiritual nourishment, offering a weekly service gives seniors a comforting sense of familiarity, ritual, and fellowship. For people with Alzheimer’s, an interactive and repetitive approach enables everyone to participate at their highest ability level.

You can do this

As the worship leader, you don’t have to be an expert speaker, scripture scholar, or musician; all you need is a simple, repeatable agenda and a commitment to love and encourage every attendee. In my experience, even those who haven’t attended church in years (or who come from another faith tradition entirely) enjoy the time together.

These free worship service agendas probably include more material than you’ll need, so pick and choose what works for you — or create your own.

Before church starts

  • If your community doesn’t have a chapel room, set up chairs as needed, preferably facing away from the door to minimize distractions when visitors enter and leave. Leave a bit of space between each chair to help people to grab the chair arms as they sit down.
  • Set up an “altar” – a simple bedside table that raises up and down, covered with a pretty cloth, works well. (See other items you may want to use.)
  • Thirty minutes before the service begins, turn on recorded pipe organ music as an audible cue. Many memory-care seniors associate this kind of music with entering a church.
  • Greet people as they arrive and help them to a chair; if using, give each person a hymn notebook.

Hymns

  • Before each hymn, loudly call out the hymn name (and page number, if applicable).
  • With memory care residents, keep the order consistent from week to week, except for special seasons and services, such as Advent.
  • I’ve heard different opinions on whether to use songbooks. At Balfour Cherrywood, we have the ElderSong lyrics printed in 18-point type (typically one song per page). Each page has a page number and is placed in a plastic page protector, assembled with two clasp rings. Many people use the books to follow along; others merely hold them. Because the hymns are generally short and well-known, you may decide to forgo hymn books completely. Choose whatever method works best for your group.
  • I’ve compiled a ready-to-use songbook designed to use with the services offered on this site. You can, of course, choose a hymn order to meet your group’s needs, but mix it up with faster/slower and shorter/longer songs.

During the service

  • Always speak slowly and loudly (or use a hands-free microphone), with a warm, personal tone. Make lots of eye contact.
  • Use an agenda, but go with the flow. Move around the room; feel free to help people find the correct hymn page, or to touch someone on the shoulder. Remember, you are part of the group, not just the leader. Worship with them!
  • Whatever agenda you use, keep certain elements consistent every week, such as an opening prayer, the hymn order, reciting the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), and the closing blessing.
  • If possible, read Bible passages from an actual, traditional-looking Bible. I’ve included biblical texts within my church agendas, but reading from a physical Bible provides another point of recognition and familiarity.
  • The agenda is mainly a guide; feel free to change things as needed. If your interactive homily (typically 10-15 minutes) takes a different direction and people are engaging with a particular idea, keep going with that and build on it if you like. Also rearrange readings — or skip some entirely, along with hymns — to meet residents’ needs (as well as to fit the allotted time).
  • Call people by name, and affirm their contributions and thoughts, no matter what they say.
  • Handle interruptions or disruptions with patience and grace; call in another staff member only if necessary.

When the service is over

  • Turn on the instrumental hymn music again.
  • Walk around to collect hymn books and give each person a personal greeting or blessing. Shake or clasp their hand gently and thank them by name for coming.

A note about sensory input

When leading spiritual events for a group of memory-care residents, it’s wonderful to include as many of the senses as possible.

  • Sight: During the church service, I wear a Guatemalan stole (a nod to my Latina roots, but choose whatever type suits you) as a visual cue that I’ll be leading the worship time. I also incorporate banners during special celebrations such as Advent and Easter, as well as simple ones for “ordinary” seasons, as visual cues that this space and time are set aside for worship. (Check out PraiseBanners.com for nice-looking, affordable banners.)
  • Sound: Hymns are a wonderful point of connection for almost every elder; even people who don’t consider themselves churchgoers and those who have lost the ability to speak often start mouthing the words to familiar hymns such as “Amazing Grace.” People love to sing or listen to songs, so use hymns liberally and often! We typically sing about 15 ElderSong hymns (remember, they’re short) during a Sunday service. In addition, we use a small chime during the final benediction, striking a singing bell on the word “Lord.”
  • Scent: Certain smells can immediately evoke memories and rituals. Use incense such as frankincense and myrrh at Christmastime and Easter, or spices, foods, and plants, such as cinnamon, rose, vanilla, and peppermint, to illustrate various themes. On the Sunday near Chinese New Year, for example, I walk around with a scored orange (traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year) for people to inhale the lovely essential oils in the peel.
  • Touch: The sense of touch connects people with feelings and concepts. For example, for the Baptism/Water service, I bring in smooth river stones as a tactile example of water’s smoothing, cleansing properties. Other ideas: palm fronds for Palm Sunday; feathers or silk when discussing light or beauty; evergreen branches during the Christmas season (good for touch and scent). Use your imagination!
  • Taste: If possible, arrange with the staff to serve a small snack at the end of the service. Simple refreshments, such as popcorn and cookies or juice and tea, can evoke memories of church social hours.

If you have ideas of your own, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below.

Peace be with you,

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