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Creating a dementia friendly church

 A diagnosis of dementia shouldn’t mean the end of a person’s place in church; Louise Morse shares the story of one congregation that has taken steps to ensure everyone is welcome

03 Jan 2015

Every Sunday morning, 87-year-old Kenneth* is collected from his care home by minibus and taken to church. Care home staff were initially a little concerned that Kenneth, who has dementia, might ‘leg it’ (as they put it) because he would often decide to go for a walk, suddenly and without warning, loping at incredible speed across the fields that he knows so well in the Suffolk countryside. No matter how dementia friendly the church, would he get bored and ‘do a runner’?

They needn’t have worried. At church Kenneth was paired up with a ‘buddy’, someone he knew who would befriend him, sit alongside him and make sure that he had everything he needed each week. It turned out that Kenneth was so contented in church that he never showed the slightest inclination to run off. He sat throughout the service, joining in when a snatch of a hymn stirred his memory, and occasionally falling asleep on his buddy’s shoulder during the sermon. If he became restless at any point his buddy would take him to the toilet, or offer him a drink from the kitchen, or even walk with him around the church garden before going back inside. But most of the time Kenneth oozed contentment. He’d been a Christian for most of his life and simply being in church, with its ritual, the hymns he’d always loved and its sense of peace, was like being at home. It resonated with the life-long practices and beliefs at the core of his being, and in the peace the Holy Spirit ministered to his soul.

For most believers, our church fellowship is our central community. It’s where we learn, share, make friendships, and find encouragement and support. It’s where we worship, where we are known and accepted. But most people with dementia stop going to church. They feel uncomfortable, not because their church has changed but because their ability to process information is impaired. They forget names and faces and have sudden ‘blanks’. They feel vulnerable outside their own four walls. But everyone at Kenneth’s church has been trained in understanding dementia, including what to expect and how to respond.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY

It’s largely been down to former community nurse and care home manager, Rosie Barker. Rosie has always been passionate about older people, and trained at Stirling University, a European centre of excellence in dementia. She believes people with dementia should be kept a part of normal life, especially church life. Rosie believes there are six golden rules to being a dementia friendly church, and has written a leaflet on the subject.

The first key is to have total commitment from the church leadership. The pastoral ministry must address issues through teaching and preaching, and bring the whole church on board. The second is to have a project leader with vision. In this case it was Rosie, who trained others too. The third is to have regular meetings for feedback, fellowship and prayer. It’s important to support one another and to be creative in meeting individual’s needs. The fourth key is making sure the building is dementia friendly. Things like contrasting chairs and flooring, good lighting, reflective tape on steps, strongly coloured lavatory walls (so that the lavatory ‘stands out’), visual cues on doorways, clear pathways and a host of other simple changes make all the difference. The fifth is the buddy system. Buddies can be relatives, friends or church members who know as much as they can about the individuals with dementia, who make them feel welcome and safe. Finally, the sixth key, says Rosie, is sharing what you know with other churches and community groups.

*name changed to protect privacy.

Rosie’s booklet, Creating a Dementia Friendly Church is available from Pilgrims’ Friend Society. You can contact Rosie on info@pilgrimsfriend.org.uk with the title ‘For Rosie Barker’ in the subject line.