10 tips for creating dementia friendly churches

Dementia Friendly Churches are churches that include and welcome people with dementia. They offer people with dementia respect and dignity, and promote knowledge and awareness about dementia within the local community.  While people with dementia have diminished ability to think and remember, in many other ways they are like anyone else.  People with dementia are loved by God and are able to enjoy a relationship with God, other people and the wider creation.  Dementia friendly churches contribute to the development of dementia friendly communities and enhance the well being of people with dementia and their family carers.  

Here are 10 tips for churches seeking to develop dementia friendly churches:

1. Be positive about what people with dementia can do

It is easy to think of what people with dementia cannot do, rather than what they can do.  Often people’s negative assumptions inhibit and discourage people with dementia doing everyday activities.  Sometimes faced with discouragement from others, people with dementia can give up trying, and lose their ability to do every day activities.  It is important that people alongside people with dementia have a positive and optimistic, though realistic view on what people with dementia can do.           

2. Support people with dementia make choices

One way people establish who they are and have control over their life is by making choices.  While sometimes people with dementia have difficulty making choices, many can be supported to make decisions.  Oliver James in ‘Contended Dementia’ reminds us that people with dementia can find making choices difficult.  Supported decision making is very important and various strategies are now available that offer people with dementia make worthwhile choices.
3. Listen to what people with dementia are saying

People with dementia sometimes find it difficult to tell others what they want.  Often the stories they tell are vague, rambling, and difficult to follow.  It is important to focus on the person with dementia and listen attentively to what they are saying.  It will help them feel valued and respected, and promote their sense of well being.  

4. Watch what people with dementia say with their body

People with dementia, particularly in the latter stages often find themselves using their body to help them say what they mean.  Sometimes you can read what people are saying in their faces, sometimes you can see what they mean by something they do.  Pia Kontos, a Canadian researcher shows how you ‘read’ the body of people with dementia by looking at what they wear, and has a special meaning to them.  Everybody expresses themselves through their body.  By looking at what people with dementia are saying with their body, helps us understand what they are saying.

5. Avoid correcting what people with dementia say

People with dementia often say things that are not accurate, though it may mean something important to them.  It is not a good idea to tell people with dementia that they are wrong.  We would not like that and neither would they, and will only reinforce their sense of failure, and in any case, they may well not remember the correction you have made.  

6. Always assume people with dementia know what you are saying

Just because a person has dementia does not mean that they cannot understand what is said around them.  Nurses are taught to always assume that patients in a coma can understand everything that is said around them.  Without this caution, a nurse could say something that is heard by a patient that is unhelpful or disparaging.  The same is the case for a person with dementia, who may find hearing such comments discouraging and hurtful.
7. Show people with dementia love

We all know what it is like when someone shows that they care are for us.  People with dementia are no different and flourish when they are shown love.  Always think what it is like for the person with dementia, and put yourself in their place.    

8. Help people with dementia look good

People who have watched the TV  programme ‘How to Look Good Naked’ will know that when people dress well and look good, they often feel better about themselves. The same is the case for people with dementia. It is important that people with dementia are supported to look neat and tidy, and dress in clothes they like and look good in. 

9. Encourage people with dementia to be creative

We are all made in the image of God and share God’s ability to be creative.  People, including people with dementia thrive and flourish when they are able to display their creativity, and are able to produce things that shares who they are and what is important            
to them.
10. Support people with dementia to worship 

God loves all people, including people with dementia.  People with dementia and their family carers should have the opportunity to worship God, experience personal transformation, and develop an increased sense of hope and meaning.  It is important that innovative and appropriate ways of helping people come closer to God are developed by churches and that people with dementia and their family carers are properly supported as they pass through a stressful and difficult part of their life.  The work of Jean Vanier, in his development of L‘Arche communities provide a good example of how the love of God is displayed to people with learning difficulties and offers helpful insights for churches seeking to support people with dementia.

Related ideas for leaders: Seventeen Ways to Develop a Dementia-Friendly Church

Dementia Friendly Churches are churches that welcome and include people with dementia.  People with dementia have difficulty remembering what has happened and working things out.  They often find themselves excluded from the roles and relationships they had with other people and the local community.  Churches are an important group in many local communities, and can promote the inclusion of people with dementia within the church and local community.  Here are 17 suggestions about how to develop a dementia-friendly church.

• welcome all people with dementia, and say ‘Hello’
• listen closely to what people with dementia are saying
• allow people with dementia access to the same facilities as other church members, such as toilets, communion vessels and crockery
• train church members in dementia awareness
• visit people with dementia who cannot attend church activities
• accept that people with dementia will break accepted social rules in church, and do not make them feel bad about it   
• never exclude anyone with dementia from any public church activity                                               
• look for the strengths and abilities in people with dementia which they can share with other’s people in the church
• use Christian songs that people with dementia can remember                                       
• use basic language in worship, avoiding Christian ideas that are too abstract               
• keep sermons short
• use signs and symbolism, including vestments and candles - that help people with dementia be alert to what is happening
• encourage people with dementia to go up for prayer
• use touch for example, shaking hands as a sign of peace
• develop a prayer ministry for people with dementia and their families
• designate a special Sunday as ‘Dementia Sunday’
• have special services for people with dementia and their family carers

Remember that people with dementia are people just like you and I, and that just because they are not as good at remembering or working things out, they are loved by God and are able to enter into relationship with God and others.
Trevor Adams, 21/02/2020
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