Walking through the valley of dementia…

Did you forget where you left your glasses? No problem. Did you forget you wear glasses? Then you may have a problem. If you need to ask someone what day it is, no problem, but if you ask for that date three times in a row in less than five minutes, you may have a problem. That is my mother-in-law’s situation. While writing a check for her church offering, she asked me repeatedly what the date was because she suffers from dementia.

Dementia is defined as the loss of cognitive functioning which includes thinking, remembering, and reasoning to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. While dementia covers various kinds of memory loss, the main one is Alzheimer’s disease which is a progressive disease that currently has no cure.

It is estimated that 6.7 million Americans over age 65 are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2023. Further statistics indicate about 1 in 9 people (10.8%) over age 65 have Alzheimer’s dementia. Two-thirds of those Americans over age 65 with Alzheimer’s dementia (4.1 million) are women. Deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease between 2000 and 2019 have more than doubled, increasing 145%. 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia

With these facts, pastors and other church workers are sure to be dealing with church members or family members suffering from dementia.

What can one do to help those suffering from this disease?

Pray. Pray for those suffering from the illness, pray for patience in dealing with those who are ill, and pray for compassion and wisdom as you minister to these people dwelling in the desert of dementia.

Seek knowledge. Learn the facts about this disease so you have a better understanding. Read articles, listen to podcasts, or read a book on the subject. Visit with someone at the nursing home or senior center who deals with these individuals on a daily basis for their insight on how you can minister better to them.

Learn to listen. Listening to a person with memory loss is challenging, as they often repeat things over and over again. Listening to them includes not arguing with them. A cardinal rule is to never argue with a dementia patient. This may require some creative thinking as the dementia person may get stuck on a certain topic. The listener’s challenge is to learn to change the topic in order to help the individual.

Share stories, validate feelings and learn key terminology

Avoid saying phrases like, “Do you remember?” to a person suffering memory loss. It only adds to their frustration. A different approach is to share a story from their past like, “I remember when we lived in the blue house by the train tracks….” and let the individual add what details they choose to share. Don’t be shocked if they can recall old memories going back years, but not an event that happened in the last hour.

When listening to a person with dementia, they may express a host of feelings, and it is wise to validate those feelings. Even if the reason for such emotions may not make sense to us, they are still real to that person and we don’t need to argue with them, but instead support those emotions.

Learn proper terminology with this illness. For example, “sundowning” is a phrase that refers to a state of confusion occurring in the late afternoon and lasting into the night. Sundowning can cause different behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions (something to remember when setting a time to visit those with dementia).

Live in and share God’s grace

Provide spiritual support. Offer to read a devotion with your loved one. Use familiar scripture passages like John 10, Psalm 23, or any other psalms that might bring some peace and comfort. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is beneficial for them to hear or possibly join with you in saying. Hymns and other Christian songs can be very helpful as music often helps calm the individual.

Live under Grace. People with dementia will say and do some nasty things that can hurt caregivers. Caregivers will fail to say and do the right things, because we are all sinful human beings. However, as God’s people we live under the grace of God. This means we are forgiven by God and enabled to forgive others and ourselves.

How can we help those who are caring for loved ones with memory loss?

  1. Include these individuals in your daily prayers.Ask God to give them the patience and wisdom to care for their loved one in the best possible way. Ask God to guide you in your ministry to them.
  2. Walk alongside them.Take time to give them a call or to stop by for a visit, or invite them out for a lunch or cup of coffee. These caregivers need someone to hear their hurts, frustrations and fears. In listening, don’t seek to solve their problems, but rather validate their feelings and be one who encourages them and supports them as they travel this tough road.
  3. Provide resources.While families may know more about the disease than you do, they may not be aware of some of the resources available to help with financial, medical and legal areas. Other resources can include support groups for those struggling or connecting them to fellow church members who may have walked this journey in the past. If your church has a ministry like Stephen Ministers, they can be a great help for those caring for loved ones. Another resource is a counselor who can listen to their fears and struggles. Agencies like Lutheran Family Service offers Christian counselors who can be another way to help those struggling to care for loved ones with memory loss or some other illness.
  4. Help them take a break.Ongoing caregiving is exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally for caregivers, especially if they have the individual with memory loss living with them in their home. If you can recruit members to provide coverage for an evening, or a day, or even a weekend, so the caregiver can get a break, this can be a tremendous blessing. (Depending on the level of care, some specialized training may be needed.)
  5. Help them to live under God’s grace.Caregivers will make mistakes, and feel guilty. Caregivers will make decisions about their loved one that may leave them feeling guilty. As members of the body of Christ, our calling is to encourage each other, to help each other and to remind each other that we live under the amazing grace of a Lord and Savior who loves us, forgives us, and is with us always.

These suggestions are just a small sampling of the many ways church workers and church members can help those struggling with this illness or help those who are caregivers to the ones with this illness. Hopefully, this article has been helpful, but to learn more check out https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet or go to Alzheimer’s Association at https://www.alz.org/ Another good source is the book. New Every Day Navigating Alzheimer’s with grace and compassion by Dave Meurer. This book includes a strong gospel message and can be found at your local library.

Always in the care of the Good Shepherd

Finally, remember that a person with memory loss is still a child of God. They may not always remember the names of those they love, but the One who loved and died for them knows them by name. We are not saved by remembering our Bible verses, or how well we remember the catechism, but rather we are saved by God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Just as a little infant may not know all the details of what God has done for them, but is still saved through the miracle of water and word in Baptism, so those who have suffer memory loss are saved with the same amazing grace. What a joy it is to know that someday their journey through the dark valley of dementia will be over, and they will be face to face with their loving Shepherd who has been with them all the way.

Lutheran Family Service counselor, Rev. Dave Gunderson, tLMFT, serves clients throughout South Dakota via telehealth.

If you or someone you know is in need of Christ-centered mental health or marriage counseling, refer to or contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Lutheran Family Service walks with those experiencing difficult times through mental health counseling, marriage counseling, crisis pregnancy counseling, and adoption services.



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