Pastoral Care for a More than Cognitive Faith: Dementia as Crisis/Opportunity for the Church

May 30th, 2018

On a cold rainy November day in 2009, my wife and I received news that changed every aspect of our lives—vocation, location, roles, finances, relationships, theological perspective, and church participation. Linda was diagnosed specifically with frontotemperal dementia (FTD), a neurocognitive disease under the umbrella of “dementia.” Since that fateful day, we have been on a precarious journey of persistent change and loss.

The same day we received the dreaded diagnosis, more than twelve hundred others were given similar news. More than 5.5 million people in the United States have some type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease being the most prevalent form.

The crisis will dramatically increase as the population ages. By 2050 the number is expected to reach as high as sixteen million. According to current studies, 14 percent of people seventy-one years of age or older have a form of dementia. That number has a far reach and impacts many couples and families, as nearly 15.7 million Americans actively care for someone who has been diagnosed. The number of primary caregivers is expected to reach 45 million by 2050.

These statistics represent an opportunity for ministry and a challenge for The United Methodist Church. While the median age in the United States is thirty-seven, in our denomination it is significantly higher at age fifty-seven. We, therefore, have a disproportionate number of people living with dementia diseases. It is likely that every family has someone dealing daily with the challenges of cognitive impairment, either personally or as a caregiver.

Yet, those people are often hidden from view or relegated to the list of “homebound.” Their needs go unmet and their gifts denied. Or perhaps they become objects of the congregation’s outreach rather than fellow participants in God’s life and mission.

The church is uniquely positioned to model an alternative to the way society marginalizes and stigmatizes people with dementia diseases. By the message it proclaims and the community it shares, the church can model love and make a vital difference.

Those living with neurocognitive diseases offer a unique opportunity for congregations to embody the message and ministry of the Christian gospel. And these members serve us, too, as they often push the boundaries of our understanding and practice of personhood and community.

The church bears witness to human dignity and worth that transcends mental, physical, and emotional capacities. We are more than our intellectual and physical abilities. Identity and worth are not measured by IQ, recall, productivity, or looks. We are beloved children of God, made in the divine image, and redeemed in Jesus Christ! People with dementia deserve to be treated as such!

The message of human dignity and worth requires embodiment, incarnation. Isolation and marginalization defies the message. Therefore, ministry of presence is crucial. Experience and research indicate that feelings created from presence, touch, hymns, and affirmation endure—even when recall is absent. Therefore, visitation creates positive emotions and bonding even when the visitor is not recognized or remembered.

The church can counter society’s isolation with an inclusive, hospitable community in which all belong. Belonging is more than inclusion! We belong when our absence is felt and when our gifts are received. The presence of people with dementia necessitates an evaluation of our print-oriented, abstract-thinking forms of worship and Christian education. Flexibility, patience, and toleration of disruption are needed.

Caregivers and other family members coping with Alzheimer’s or other dementias also merit special attention by congregations and pastors. They, too, easily become isolated and live with persistent stress and grief. Studies document that approximately 70 percent of caregivers die prior to the person for whom they provide care. Systems of support can help alleviate or lessen the challenges experienced by caregivers. Providing respite care, meals, and visits are among the ways congregations can communicate support to a caregiver.

People with dementia are disciples with Christian vocation. Their very presence is a means of grace and growth in discipleship. They push us to rethink basic Christian affirmations and force us to grapple with such questions of faith and quality of life as these: What does it mean to love God when one forgets God? If Christianity is primarily a system of doctrines and beliefs, what about those who no longer hold cognitive beliefs? How does one affirm faith when language is gone?

Although Linda is now in the severe stage of her disease where cognitive functioning is minimal, she continues to be a means of grace. She teaches me patience, broadens my capacity to love without reciprocity, enables me to live in the moment, and appreciates such simple expressions as a fleeting smile or gentle touch.

Linda and others with dementia confirm the Apostle Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 13: Love endures when tongues, knowledge, and capacities pass away! The church exists to embody that fundamental declaration!

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