Understanding Dementia

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This article is part of The Third Third of Life Toolkit—a collection of resources for ministry to and with people ages 55 and over, brought to you by two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America: Disability Concerns and Faith Formation Ministries.

A dementia diagnosis can be a shock. But understanding the disease better, through resources like those gathered here, can lead to increased quality of life both for persons with dementia and for those who love and care for them.

Understanding Dementia

Articles

  • Dad, Descartes, and Dementia offers Robert Ritzema’s personal reflections on his father’s dementia. In spite of all the frustrations and difficulties he encounters, the author notes: “Laughter, empathy, anxiety, joy, yearning for relationship, and gratitude: despite limitations of thought and memory, Dad is still richly human.” 

  • Mom’s Last Little Light is a beautiful account by Mark Stephenson about how he sensed his mother’s love and affirmation even after she no longer had words to express them.

  • How Your Race Impacts Your Risk of Dementia compares the differing rates of dementia in various ethnic groups, explains some possible reasons for discrepancies, and talks about what we can do to more openly address the challenges of dementia.

Films

  • What They Had is a moving story of a family in crisis as a wife and mother slips into dementia. Check out the trailer

  • The film Still Alice (2014), based on Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel of the same name, follows Columbia linguistics professor Alice Howland as she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Powerful discussion starter.

Children’s Book

  • Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox is a beautiful children’s story about a boy who helps an older woman regain some of her memories. The book provides a powerful way to talk about dementia with both children and others.

Encouragement for People with Dementia and Their Families

Books

  • In The 36-Hour Day, Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins give readers a sense of what it’s like to care for someone with memory loss. The book is loaded with practical information, including how to choose a long-term-care facility.

Film

  • In the documentary Alive Inside (2014), social worker Dan Cohen fights a broken healthcare system and advocates for the use of music therapy for people with dementia.

For Church Leaders and Planners

Articles

  • In 5 Benefits of Spiritual Care for Elders with Dementia, chaplain Elisa Bosley describes why spiritual nurture is so important for people who have dementia and gives suggestions for what activities are most meaningful for them. 

  • In A Glimpse behind the Veil, chaplain Ardean Brock describes why a visit to the memory unit has become the highlight of her week.

  • Still a Child of God, by Joan Huyser-Honig, offers insights into how to lead worship and build community in meaningful ways with people with dementia. The article includes a resource list and questions for church leaders to discuss and reflect on.

  • In Nancy Gordon on Sensing the Sacred, Gordon describes how she has adapted the Young Children and Worship Approach for people with dementia and tells why it’s so powerful.

  • As the numbers of people with memory loss continue to grow, the church has a primary opportunity to reach out and help. Not Forgotten suggests that both ministering to caregivers and comforting people who have memory challenges are powerful ways of being the body of Christ.

Resources

  • Faith and Dementia. This edition of Groundwork, a podcast created by Reframe Media, focuses on the good news of God’s Word for facing the difficult diagnosis and reality of dementia. There’s a downloadable transcript of the podcast, and discussion questions are included.

  • Together Curriculum. This highly inclusive Bible study curriculum has been tested successfully with groups that were made up of people with memory loss or more typical small groups who include a person or two with memory loss. For more information, see togethersmallgroups.org. Also check out 12 Helpful Tips for using the curriculum with people with dementia.

FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  • If you are discussing this topic in a group, take time to tell stories of your experience with dementia with a family member or friend. Shared stories can be one of the most powerful ways of supporting each other and of building understanding about this difficult disease.

  • In what ways might your church support people who are dealing with dementia? How might you support their caregivers and families?

QUESTIONS?

If you’re part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and you have questions about how to strengthen your church’s ministry to and with people in the third third of life, one of Faith Formation Ministries’ Regional Catalyzers would love to talk with you about ideas and strategies.

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