Meeting the Spiritual Needs of Seniors with Dementia

shutterstock_239451376When a loved one lives with dementia, many families choose a senior community to provide assistance with changing care needs. And those needs aren’t limited to the physical and emotional side; seniors with dementia have spiritual needs as well. How can families provide spiritual support for their loved one after a move to Memory Care? Reverend Colette Bachand-Wood, author of Do This, Remembering Me: The Spiritual Care of Those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, shares her insight. 

Dementia and Spirituality

When your loved one can no longer eat, speak, or walk, you may think he or she is “gone,” but Rev. Wood urges families to rethink that notion.

“The things they do may be gone, but the soul is still alive,” she says, adding that no matter what your religion, for those who believe, spirituality exists in the soul, and dementia can’t take that away.

Religious Services in Senior Living

Religious services are a wonderful way to help your loved ones connect with their spirituality. When you can no longer take your loved ones to church, this option allows you to bring the church to them.

“If your loved one was part of a house of worship, remind the clergy to visit them,” says Rev. Wood, who currently serves as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Whitman, Massachusetts, and is also chaplain at the Village at Proprietors Green in Marshfield. In addition, she recommends asking the church office to mail them weekly bulletins and monthly newsletters, so they stay connected to the congregation.

Even senior living facilities that are not faith based typically provide a range of religious services within the community. Encourage your loved ones to attend these services, and join them whenever possible.

Tips for Family Worship

Of course, you don’t have to participate in a formal service to provide spiritual care for your loved one. Rev. Wood offers tips to foster your own times of worship together:

  • Create a sacred space – Gather the symbols of your faith in a dedicated spot in your loved one’s room. These visual and tactile cues can help your loved one engage in the experience.
  • Stimulate the senses – For most faiths, many religious holidays are tied closely to seasonal scents or even foods. You can use these to trigger memories and spiritual emotions.
  • Pray together – If you feel uncomfortable praying with your loved one, Rev. Wood encourages you to acknowledge the awkwardness, but pray anyway. Prompt your loved one to pray with you. If you’ve always prayed together at specific times of day, continue those traditions.
  • Sing together – Music is a powerful tool that helps those with dementia connect to past events and memories. Download and play some of your loved one’s favorite hymns or songs they strongly associate with their spirituality. They might even surprise you by singing along.
  • Enjoy the silence – “Don’t try to talk about everything under the sun,” says Rev. Wood. Part of creating a sacred space is leaving room for silence and trusting your faith to fill those spaces.

Enhancing Quality of Life

Spiritual care absolutely makes a difference in the lives of seniors, attests Rev. Wood, sharing one of her favorite stories. A few days before Christmas, she was sitting with a man in hospice who could no longer speak or eat. Though nurses told her he had no idea what was happening, she continued to try to reach him. When she began to sing “Silent Night,” she was amazed to hear him sing the rest of the song with her.

shutterstock_451314655Not only are these kinds of spiritual connections miraculous, but they can also improve the quality of life for seniors with dementia. Rev. Wood has witnessed Memory Care residents enter a worship service agitated and leave smiling. The prayers and songs have a calming effect and even decrease residents’ blood pressure, she says. “Spiritual care can tremendously increase their overall sense of wellbeing.”

Though dementia is filled with losses, spiritual life doesn’t have to be one of them. “What a gift we can offer those with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Rev. Wood says. “If we can help them reconnect with that part of themselves.” 

DISCUSS: Has spirituality played a role in your loved one’s life?

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