What can be our response as Christians in creating a ‘dementia friendly’ Church community?

What can be our response as Christians in creating a ‘dementia friendly’ Church community?

The theme of the 2019 Dementia Action Week, which ran from 16 to 22 September was: Dementia doesn’t discriminate. Do you? 

The CEO of Dementia Australia Maree McCabe says “Assumptions might be made about a person’s capacity to contribute to conversations, decision-making, whether they can still drive, cook or even continue to work. Friends and family might stop calling or inviting a person living with dementia to social occasions – not out of deliberate neglect but possibly out of not knowing how to include them.”

Have you ever thought about the idea that ‘Prejudice’ actually means to ‘pre-judge’? When we hear the term ‘Dementia’ we bring to the situation our experiences, learnings and perhaps personal encounters to develop a concept of what we mean by ‘Dementia’. This may be positive or negative depending on these previous experiences and perceptions. 

We use a variety of terms to describe a situation where a person is showing evidence of memory loss. We might say, ‘He is becoming confused/ muddled/disorientated/forgetful’ and dismiss the evidence as due to ‘getting old or senile’. Eventually there may be a diagnosis of one of the many forms of dementia.

In the wider community the focus of creating a dementia friendly community is ensuring all people are valued, safe and encouraged to maintain social interaction. “A dementia-friendly community is a place where people living with dementia are supported to live a high quality of life with meaning, purpose and value”. Dementia Australia. 

What can be our response as Christians in creating a ‘dementia friendly’ Church community? 

In many dimensions our response is the same as in the wider community. We need to ensure people are ‘valued, safe and encouraged to maintain social interaction’ and pay attention to our physical environment, avoiding confusing ‘busy-ness’ in patterns and blandness in colours. We need to ensure that important information does not have an overlay of ‘noise’. There is a great deal of information on the web site for Dementia Australia about the possibilities for environmental improvement. (https://www.dementia.org.au/). 

As a community of faith, in what ways do we need to raise our awareness to ensure members experiencing dementia are fully part of our community? How do we continue to support the individual’s faith journey and what can we say about dementia and God, dementia and our church?  

In Western society, and in the church, we so often define a person’s worth by what they can contribute (or do not contribute). An initial question on meeting someone is often, ‘What do you do?’  We listen to sermons on the diversity of gifts, with an underlying message: ‘We need to contribute as we are able’. Where does this place a person who is perceived as being a ‘non-contributor? If we forget, does that make us any less valuable? Is our worth before God defined by our level of activity or by being free from illness, disease or cognitive challenges?  

There are some excellent books available that explore the faith journeys of people with dementia. A common thread is that personal faith often becomes fundamental to identity, at a time when our life-long identity is being corroded by memory confusion. Questions of Theology and Ethics fade or are forgotten, and it comes down to relationships. Relationship with God and with other people. 

We can show care by accepting that relationships take time, acceptance of being in the presence of someone who may not seem to know you, acknowledging the uniqueness and worth of each individual and acknowledging that we do not have answers while accepting that ultimately God does.

How do we break down prejudice as a Christian church? Can we rethink how we express our faith? Can we be truly inclusive? Can we be agents to dispel the prejudice and awkwardness we often experience towards people with dementia? 

All this is possible through giving and receiving God’s grace, through worshipping together and especially praying together, through sharing and through ‘agape’ love. 

We can truly be agents of radical grace.