Regardless of their intention or compassion, too few church congregations are equipped or can find resources to sustain support to individuals or families with loved ones with dementia.

In a recent story for The Presbyterian Outlook, Cynthia Ray writes about what congregations can do to help this segment of the population.
What if congregations joined with other institutions and organizations to create an environment that is safe and respectful of individuals with dementia, their families and caregivers? What if the church became a dementia-friendly congregation within a dementia-friendly community?

If we maintain that all persons, including those with dementia, are created in God’s image, how can we uphold and honor them as unique and wonderfully made? How can we keep them connected to the community of grace?

Such a vision of care is already emerging. The vision of a national volunteer-driven initiative known as Dementia Friendly America (DFA), was announced at the White House Conference on Aging last year. DFA’s goals are to foster dementia-friendly communities that will enable people who are living with dementia and their care partners to thrive and to be independent as long as possible. To do so, the movement is calling on businesses, local governments, health care organizations, community-based organizations, churches, synagogues and spiritual communities to create a society by 2020 where every person with dementia in every area of the country not only receives high quality compassionate care and support from diagnosis through to end of life care, but remains welcome and connected to the community where they live.

The movement was born in Minnesota through ACT on Alzheimer’s, a statewide collaboration that launched in 2011 to equip and engage communities to become “dementia friendly.”

ACT on Alzheimer’s is not a single organization but a collaboration of more than 400 participants in over 30 cities and towns in Minnesota. More than 60 nonprofit, governmental and private organizations have stepped up, including two senior living communities of Presbyterian Homes & Services: Carondelet Village in St. Paul and GracePointe Crossing in Cambridge. While both senior communities offer an option of specialized memory care, their commitment to and leadership with ACT on Alzheimer’s extend their ministries deep into their local communities.

Vital to this initiative are the education and deployment of “dementia champions,” trained volunteers who conduct information sessions and encourage others to make a positive difference for people living with dementia. In turn, those who attend these sessions become “dementia friends” who have learned about what it’s like to live with dementia and share what they’ve learned in their workplaces, social circles and community relationships.

As this movement rolls out nationwide, congregations and spiritual communities are invited to join the initiative. Churches are already well-positioned to engage with and advocate for those touched by Alzheimer’s and related dementias.


What does it mean to be a dementia-friendly congregation?
Here are some examples of actions a congregation can take to create a supportive environment:

  • Talk to members who are living with dementia and their caregivers to find out their perspectives about what the congregation can do to offer support and sustain their connection.
  • Commit to being more inclusive and aware of the needs of people living with dementia, consistent with the congregation’s greater commitment to inclusiveness.
  • Collaborate with a local senior living community that offers a memory care living option or adult day care. Senior living providers have qualified staff who can educate pastoral and volunteer caregivers and church staff to increase awareness and understanding of dementia and provide training on good communication strategies.
  • Consider how worship practices invite or hinder participation. Increasing multi-sensory elements, especially through art and music, can connect with people in ways that words fall short. Address dementia-related issues in preaching. Recruit “worship friends” willing to sit with and assist persons with dementia through the service.
  • Invite those with early-stage dementia to join activities or volunteer for tasks that bring them satisfaction. Engage church youth as volunteers in your Alzheimer’s-related programs.
  • Evaluate the church’s physical environment to ensure it is accessible and appropriate for people with dementia. This includes consistent signage and directional cues.
  • Review regularly used documents (including bulletins and newsletters) to ensure they use clear, straightforward language and appropriate design. Include written and digital resources about dementia and available support in literature racks, newsletters and on the church website.
  • Develop a caregiver ministry to give caregivers a needed break to run errands, meet appointments or just take a break for their well-being.
  • Reach out to local business and community organizations to begin a dementia-friendly initiative.