Faith Matters: When it comes to dementia, here’s why places of worship must pay attention

Martha isn’t even 70 yet. She had an amazing career in the Navy and traveled all over the world.

Despite never having kids of her own, she poured out her life for teenagers and college students, leading in church youth groups and JROTC.

Martha always came to plays, recitals, graduations, weddings and sometimes even the funerals of the young people whose lives she so deeply impacted. She has been a vital part of my life and ministry for the last 17 years.

Two years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is the most widely recognized form of dementia. In Florida, we have over 500,000 people living with this disease.

By 2050, experts expect that, in the absence of a cure, that number will more than double … and churches need to pay attention.

Even if you are not directly impacted by dementia, it is highly likely that you will encounter someone who is.

And when you do, how are you going to respond?

Hope Lee.jpg
The Rev. Dr. Hope Lee

A ministry with families and individuals struggling with dementia isn’t that different than a ministry with families and individuals with special needs. In fact, autism and Alzheimer’s present some of the same cognitive challenges.

To embrace, include and empower these families is most assuredly a ministry of Christ with a heart for the least of these.

Just because Martha cannot remember my birthday or the names of my children or what she had for breakfast does not mean that she is incapable of receiving the love of Christ through hugs, notes, phone calls and sitting in worship next to someone who can talk her through what is happening in a kind and compassionate way.

Just don’t hand her the hymnal — she already remembers every word!

One of the blessings of the church, particularly churches that uplift a regular liturgy, is that the habits and the rituals and the language of the faith is so deeply ingrained into the lives of individuals with dementia that they often can recall and connect to the prayers and great hymns of the church, even if they can’t remember how they even got to worship.

My congregation has made the decision to become certified dementia friendly. We have made the commitment to improve the level of Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness within our congregation, and to take steps to compassionately serve our members living with dementia — both those with dementia and their caregivers — and ultimately our community at large.

We invite you to join us at 10 a.m. on June 15 as we host “The ABC’s of Dementia.” Led by a certified dementia practitioner, the program will address the philosophy and techniques of person-centered compassionate care.

Presented with humor and empathy, we’ll discuss some of the challenges individuals with dementia and their caregivers face as they try to remain connected to their faith and their faith community. The workshop is free to the community, but we do ask that you RSVP at 941-794-6229.

There will come a day when Martha might not be able to recognize me any longer. But, my prayer is that whenever she sees me, no matter who she thinks I am, that she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt how precious she is to me and how even more precious she is to Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Hope Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well, can be reached at 941-794-6229, or Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Bradenton Herald written by local clergy members.

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