Why is spiritual care for elders with dementia so rare?

I’ve been pondering why I don’t see very much spiritual care happening for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Despite research that seniors with dementia value and benefit from spiritual care, I haven’t come across very many people or places that actually provide it. Why?

There are probably numerous reasons, but I think the main disconnect is that few people feel adequately equipped in both realms: the ability and gifting to minister spiritually and the ability to interact with and care for those with dementia.

Bridging two worlds

bridge--LucaTheSimon-2265095_1280-PixabayI know many people with wonderful theological and pastoral gifts—they know their Bible, they know how to listen, care, and pray for people, and their hearts are loving and good as they seek to meet people’s needs in Jesus’ name. And I know other people who step into the Alzheimer’s world with care and compassion, and who are at ease with practical tools for dealing with the disease—how to speak and interact, and what to say (or not say).

But in my experience it’s rare for someone to have both skill sets: wisdom in spiritual leadership and the ability to interact with those with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. A church deacon may know how to lead a Bible devotion, but they’re unsure how to do that for people with dementia. Conversely, a volunteer may know how to interact with an elder who’s confused and frustrated, but they don’t feel comfortable exploring spiritual issues, leading a church service, or facilitating a scripture discussion.

It’s my prayer and wish to equip people with every possible tool to meet the spiritual needs of elders, especially those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. I’ve started with the Bible discussion guides and worship services posted on this site for free, along with articles like Why–and How–to Lead a Memory-Care Worship Service and How to Lead a Bible Study for Elders with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. I know there’s a lot more, and I’m excited to continue exploring.

Are you called?

Then there’s the idea of “calling.” It’s not impossible to go through the motions of spiritual care simply by using these practical tools. But I believe having one’s own spiritual connection is absolutely key. This kind of work goes beyond the human realm—it is infused and led by the Spirit of God, so it’s crucial to have your own personal connection to the Spirit. Leading these people every week is a profound spiritual practice for me, not just for those in my care.

For example, I could use a worship agenda and go through it every week with elders, and I don’t doubt that it would do them some good because the scriptures and songs themselves would meet them in their inner being. But I believe leading while worshipping with the group leads to a more genuine, powerful experience for both of us.

If this kind of work speaks to your heart, let me assure you, it is beautiful. Even in the midst of a brain-ravaging disease, people respond to things of the Spirit—because the spirit is always, always alive. Even when we forget, God never forgets us; God is always speaking, reaching, loving, reminding, blessing, calling, comforting, encouraging, leading, and loving his children. It just takes some specialized tools to effectively access those realities when someone is cognitively impaired.

What are your thoughts on this? What tools and resources do you find helpful in drawing out the spiritual lives of those with dementia? I’d love to hear your opinions, so please comment below.

Peace be with you,

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Photo by Luca Mattioli

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