Top 10 Tips for Making our Churches More Dementia-Friendly

1) “When you have met one person with dementia; you’ve met one person with dementia”

When meeting people with dementia, it is vital that we see them as individuals who have their own unique life history, preferences, likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests and culture. By taking the time to get to know them as an individual, through observation, listening to them and their loved ones, we can interact more positively with the person with dementia. We must remember that each individual is special to God and is loved by God.

2) We are not defined by our memories but through our relationship with God.

Professor John Swinton said: “The apostle Paul talks about our identity being “held in Christ” and more than that in Colossians he says that our identity is somehow “hidden in Christ”.....Paul says we find who we are in Christ, so it is God’s memory that holds us. God always remembers us, always loves us, always holds us… It is God who makes us who we are…. When we get that perspective, we realise that it is nothing to do with us forgetting; it’s everything to do with God remembering.

3)    Dementia is not a normal part of ageing

While some degree of age-related changes are expected in terms of our memory from our 40s/50s onwards, dementia is a more serious condition which causes significant problems in many areas. For a helpful comparison of dementia and normal ageing, check out this helpful table produced on the Alzheimer’s Society website:

Is it getting older or dementia? (Alzheimer's Society)

4)    Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms caused by different diseases that damage the brain and stop it from working properly. Symptoms can include memory loss, confusion, communication difficulties (both expressing oneself and also understanding others), altered sensory perceptions, spatial awareness, difficulty carrying out activities of daily living unassisted, difficulties with planning and decision making and changes in mood and behaviour.

5)    It is still possible to live well with dementia

With the right support network people with dementia can still have a good quality of life. It is most important not to perpetuate stigma by saying “X is suffering with dementia”; say “X is living with dementia” or “X has dementia”

6) Continue to interact with people with dementia even if they don’t remember who you are.

Don’t say: “I never go to visit X anymore. I prefer to remember them the way they were”. It’s not about you, it’s about the person with dementia. It should not be about your embarrassment or awkwardness, “but about being faithful to the task that’s given to you: to reach out and visit with this person….So just put to one side your own anxiety and just try to be there for that individual” – John Swinton.

7) Consider how you may need to make changes to the physical environment of your church buildings to better facilitate involvement of people living with dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Society has produced this helpful Dementia Friendly Environments Checklist which will help you to consider different aspects:

Dementia Friendly Environments checklist (Alzheimer's Society)

8)    Change how you communicate to make your interactions more positive

When speaking to people with dementia it can be helpful to:

  • Make sure the person is comfortable
  • Make sure there is no background noises competing with your voices.
  • Slow down your speech
  • Use short words and simple, short sentences
  • Try to express yourself in different ways if the person doesn’t seem to understand (i.e. “Are you thirsty?/ Would you like something to drink? /Do you want a cup of tea?”)
  • Avoid asking questions with a right/wrong answer which the person might not be able to answer (i.e. don’t say “what did you used to do for a living?” or “how long have you been married?”).
  • Listen carefully to the person, watch their non-verbal communication for cues.
  • Give the person time to respond and don’t interrupt them (even to supply a word they’re searching for) as it might disrupt their chain of thought.

9)    Change how you do worship

Methodist Homes (MHA) offer the Worship Engagement in Later Life (WELL) programme, which is designed for faith and community leaders to improve understanding and to help deliver religious services for older people living with dementia. A WELL representative could come to your church/Circuit to lead training. Find out more here:   

Worship Engagement in Later Life - MHA WELL Programme

You could start a programme of Memory Worship, running short services with traditional hymns. A good example of services like this are offered by the Wesley Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, which you can learn more here:  Memory Worship in Leigh-on-Sea:  Helping all to be included in Church

You could try Biblical yoga:    

Multi Generational Biblical Yoga: A Lent and Easter Resource (MHA)

10)  Don’t reinvent the wheel

There are lots of useful resources out there to help people who want to make their churches more dementia friendly. Here are 2 examples from the MHA and the Church of England:

Growing Dementia-Friendly Churches: A Practical Guide (MHA)

Becoming A Dementia-Friendly Church Resource pack (Church of England)