Facing the D-word
David Richardson writes:
“What is your Church doing about dementia?” is a question to which any Christian should have a ready answer. Indeed, it is a question that anyone of any faith should address in respect of their faith community.
The numbers speak for themselves: there are estimated to be 850,000 people with dementia in the UK currently; there will be one million by 2025 and two million by mid-century. It may confidently be said that ‘everybody knows somebody with dementia’.
So what is your church doing about dementia?
There are two considerations that may mute the response:
Firstly, the fact that dementia is mainly, though not exclusively, a condition that affects the elderly. Churches tend to give priority to ministry among the young. “‘What this Church needs is more old people’” is a statement that would be greeted with ridicule in the church council meeting – but as Christians, we do not have the luxury of market choice. We are there for everybody, irrespective of the date on their birth certificate. The church council or leadership team might need reminding that Jesus told Peter not just to ‘feed my lambs’ but to ‘feed my sheep’.
Secondly, the fact that dementia is not, yet, curable. If Pamela is diagnosed with cancer and goes into hospital, the church may be able to pray that Pamela recovers and will be back in her usual pew in due course. But if Pat is diagnosed with dementia, that presents a challenge to faith. What can the church pray for Pat? Third-hand stories of someone, somewhere who has been ‘cured of dementia’ are the ecclesiastical equivalent of urban myths and must be firmly rebutted – not least for Pat’s sake. The faith of the church needs to be robust enough, and mature enough, to face the fact that there is no cure. Statements such as ‘God does not give us burdens heavier than we can bear’ can be read as meaning that if Pat had been a weaker character, she would not have got dementia. ‘Remember, everything happens for a purpose’ conveys the horrifying, unkind and unchristian suggestion that God willed Pat’s dementia!
So what should the Church do for someone with dementia?
Firstly, get the setting right: decide on a strategy for addressing the challenges posed by dementia. Someone needs to be identified who will take the lead for the local church fellowship – whether this be in a chaplaincy role with pastoral responsibility, or with a remit to make the church as a whole dementia-friendly (this – full disclosure – being the path chosen for the churches of Cumbria), or whether there be some agreed combination of both of the above.
Secondly, and returning to Pat, get the preposition right: it should be a matter of ‘working with’ rather than ‘doing for’. Find out what Pat wants. ‘When you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met – one person with dementia.’
Thirdly, stay the distance: never give up. If Pat has to move into residential care, make sure that she is not forgotten. If, say, Pat had been a member of a house group, let her be brought to the meeting or – if this can be arranged – let the group meet in the care home. Let Ruth’s words to Naomi (‘whither thou goest, I will go: where thou lodgest, I will lodge’) serve as our standard of constant support for everyone affected by dementia.
Finally, pray for a cure. We are able to pray with some confidence that Pamela can return to us because of progress in cancer research a generation ago. Let prayer for a breakthrough in dementia research be a recurrent theme of our public intercessions and private devotions.
So, what is your church doing about dementia?
David Richardson is Vice President & Treasurer, and Chair of the Dementia Reference Group, for Churches Together in Cumbria. He is a Reader and Churchwarden at Kendal Parish Church and a former Trustee of Alzheimer's Society.