The church needs a better understanding of dementia: study


Tuesday, 26 March, 2024

The church needs a better understanding of dementia: study

More dementia education is needed to assist clergy in supporting those with dementia and their families, a new study shows.

Research released by the University of Aberdeen and supported by HammondCare found present theological training on dementia in a range of Christian denominations “varies widely” and “often lacks depth or practical application”, following 55 interviews in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The research, Educating for Inclusive, Caring Communities, suggested that improved theological education in dementia could help improve the experiences of people living with dementia in Christian communities, to ensure these communities are as welcoming and supportive as possible.

The study said the experiences of people living with dementia in the church shine a critical light upon many aspects of spiritual and church life, “making it a key indicator of the inclusivity and accessibility of church practices”.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) forecasts that the number of Australians living with dementia is expected to grow from the present 401,300 to more than 928,000 by 2050. The researchers said consideration of the implications of dementia for religious communities is important, with growing incidence especially concentrated in those churches with aging congregations.

“Research has indicated there is good evidence that well-informed religious communities can be valuable resources that support people living with dementia and their carers to manage, flourish and grow,” they said.

The study was based on one-on-one interviews with Christian educators representing 11 denominations in Australia and seven in the UK. There were also interviews with 24 people living with dementia and/or their carers about experience with the church.

Participants shared that churches could take practical steps to become more dementia friendly by offering level access, keeping buildings warm, installing hearing loops, ensuring clear signposting and providing transport. Other suggestions were about using older hymns; shortening and simplifying sermons by preaching around one main point; and keeping Bible readings brief.

It was evident from responses that Holy Communion was a key ritual to people living with dementia as it signalled involvement with the church community.

One interviewee, Rebecca, said aspects of the ritual could change for someone living with memory loss. She recounted that her father “had got to the point where someone gave it [communion bread] to him just to put it in his pocket because he didn’t know that ... he was meant to eat it.”

Several participants raised the question that understanding of the ritual was essential and that people with dementia, like children, should be excluded. There were also negative stories about how churches handled disruptions caused by someone with dementia.

Melissa, recently diagnosed with dementia, said churches she had visited were usually inclusive, but highlighted the response of one church following her having a “meltdown because they did something unexpected”.

"When they found out I have dementia, they said, ‘Well we don’t want you coming here then’,” she recalled.

Another interviewee, Bernie, felt excluded when church leaders responded to disruptions by saying to his carer, “You really need to go outside please.”

Participants said visits to homes or places of residence were an important dementia ministry, but some thought the ministry was difficult. The researchers said the reluctance was due to a “perception that the person living with dementia was unable to benefit from such visits”.

The researchers recommend that theological education institutions should integrate dementia education into their curricula for ministerial training and formation. They also suggest implementing a multifaceted approach to training, combining modular teaching, placements, reflection and extracurricular learning.

For churches, there should be continuous dialogue and education to foster environments that are welcoming to those living with dementia.

Image: Supplied.

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