Faith and Dementia

When looking for a picture to illustrate this post about supporting people with dementia to maintain their faith practices,  I was pleased to settle on this one,  taken in a Jewish synagogue.  Perhaps  I write, because of my upbringing, from a Western Christian perspective.  However I hope that this article will have relevance for those from all faith traditions,  including those who do not neatly fit into an established religious community.

The Individual Nature of Faith

To illustrate the diverse nature of personal belief systems I’ve reflected on how I’ve come across many people who’ve described a religious affiliation to ‘The Church of England’.  They may enter this on official forms when asked to do so.  However the differences in individual faith practices within this group are huge.  Some adopt this label because they may have been baptised by the church as a baby yet faith is something that they rarely consider in their adult lives.  Others maintain private practices but rarely set foot in a church.   The nature of worship can even be very different for those who attend a church. Outwardly the style of services across the Anglican tradition is very diverse ranging from the very traditional to less formal evangelical approaches.   What people personally get out of church attendance also varies widely.  For some there is a sense of duty and order whereas others may describe a personal relationship with their God.  The frequency that people engage in faith practices varies too.  For some there are habits and rituals that are part and parcel of daily life whereas others may engage in them at certain times of the year or during crises.   The fact that practice might not be routine does not negate its importance to an individual.

This is yet another area where skilled life history work with a person with dementia is key so that they can be supported in a person-centred way to maintain faith practices that are important to them as the disease progresses.  I hope that my example has shown that it is not enough to record a religious preference and make broad assumptions about faith practices.  Rather a highly individualised approach is required.    Be aware too that this can be an area of a person’s life that could be intensely private.  Not everyone is willing to share what has significance for them in terms of their beliefs.

I hope that the questions below give food for thought and allow this important area of the human experience to be explored.

Individual Faith Practices

  • Does the person have daily practices such as a prayer life,  spiritual reading or meditation.  Do they have a particular times of day that they wish to observe these habits?
  • Are there  books, pictures or objects that have particular meaning from a faith perspective?  How can these be used to help maintain faith?
  • Are there certain dates that have significance, for example holy days, the Sabbath, anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones?  What does this mean for the person and how might they wish to remember these?
  • Does a person’s faith have wider implication for their care.  For example, does it impact on their dietary needs, hygiene, medical treatment or dress?  Is there a requirement to fast or observe certain practices?  Is it important that care is provided by a person of the same sex?
  • What is the person’s perception of the meaning of dementia and other health issues from their faith perspective?   Do they need comforting and reassurance as a consequence of this?
  • How can practice be sustained in the light of increasing cognitive, sensory or physical problems.  Can it be adapted in a way so that is remains meaningful for the person?
  • Does a person’s faith impact on end of life planning?

Faith Practice in the Community

  • Are there places of worship locally that are a good match for the person in terms of fit with their faith and accessibility?  Are there acceptable alternatives?  Can online resources be helpful?
  • Do the people in places of worship have the skills to welcome people with dementia into their community? If not are  they willing to be supported to acquire these?
  • Can local religious leaders or lay people provide individual spiritual support for people on their dementia journey and advice for those who support them?

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