Developing dementia-friendly congregations

Joan and Reynolds WatersCHARISSE EDE

For the past eight years, Joan Waters has thought, read, wept and prayed about dementia.

The insidious disease has taken hostage of her husband of 65 years, Reynolds, a retired Uniting Church minister.

Ms Waters has watched as her vibrant, caring and loving partner slowly lost his memory, his understanding and his reasoning. In their place are confusion, anxiety and frustration.

There are almost 343,000 Australians with dementia. That figure is predicted to increase to almost 900,000 by 2050 unless there is a medical breakthrough.

While some medication is available to those with dementia, it is not a cure.

“Medication only slows down its inexorable march; it does not halt or retreat,” Ms Waters said.  “The slow erosion of the person known and loved for a lifetime is unmerciful.”

It’s important the many thousands of other people touched by people with dementia understand how to care for them. This includes church congregations.

“Most Christian theological models of personhood are based on memory, relationships, spiritual growth or doing God’s work, so they fail to include people with dementia,” Joan said.

“For a person with dementia, as the disease progresses, memory, relationships, spiritual growth – all may be lost.

“People with dementia remind us that ultimately we are all dependent on grace alone – being remembered and valued by God.”

To help congregations improve their understanding of dementia and improve their pastoral care, Uniting AgeWell and the Centre for Theology and Ministry (CTM) have developed a dementia education resource.

The DIY Dementia and pastoral care program was launched at Synod 2016.

The two-module program is accessed through the CTM website and is designed to be conducted as a group study by congregational members over two sessions.

Uniting AgeWell director of mission John Clarke said the idea for the resource came from a meeting with Ms Waters that “shook my cage and extended my horizons”, when she asked how Uniting AgeWell was equipping congregations for ministry with older people, particularly those with dementia.

“Over the last two years I’ve visited over 15 congregations conducting Q & A sessions about the challenges of ageing, and the need for more information and accessible training was reinforced in my mind,” Mr Clarke said.

“The Presbytery of Yarra Yarra’s recent meeting agreed to encourage the development of an information kit within the wider church to assist congregations to become more ‘dementia friendly’ which underlines the need.

“Joan’s promptings led us to wonder what resources we could create with CTM to offer other avenues for helping people with these pastoral care skills with older people.”

Mr Clarke said the organisation drew on its skilled education team, chaplains and the ListenWell pastoral care training modules to help build the program.

He said it was then piloted by several congregations, including Healesville Uniting Church and The Avenue Blackburn Uniting Church, while he also trialled it with a group from the synod office.

Ms Waters encouraged all congregations to take advantage of the online modules.

“It is a brief guide for congregations seeking to be welcoming, inclusive and nurturing to all who enter, including those with dementia and those who care for them,” she said.

“To be a dementia-friendly congregation is to find ways to minister to people with dementia so that they know they are ‘held by God’.

“This is a challenging ministry, but dementia-friendly congregations offer an opportunity to reach out to the vulnerable and show the love of God in action.”

DIY Dementia and pastoral care is available on the CTM website:

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