Once, when I was little, I got left at church. That Sunday had been unusually busy, and I got lost in the shuffle. I remember feeling afraid because I was alone, but also sad because I’d been forgotten. My grandfather’s greatest fear was being forgotten, because in his volunteer work in nursing homes, he often spent time with people whose families didn’t visit often, leading them to feel as if they’d been forgotten. A review of literature on helping professions (nursing, social work, ministry, etc) and their work with senior adults would suggest that, for this specific demographic, being forgotten is a common and deeply rooted fear.
My last paper in seminary was a call to the church to include people with dementia in church community life. My suggestions in the paper included a ministry of home worship, and highlighting a different senior in the bulletin in worship including favorite hymns, a formative story in the person’s religious/faith development, and a time when the person remembered the church being there for them. My research showed that in dementia, memories tied to religious experience and/or to music are the last to fade. This is why hymns are so important in ministry with people living with dementia. One of the most isolating things for people living with dementia, as it progresses, is the feeling of being alone.
Dementia is not an inevitability of aging, this is a common misconception. Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of progressively worsening symptoms creating a degenerative process in the brain resulting from either a build up of protein (tau, beta amyloid), frontotemporal damage from stroke, Parkinson’s disease… there are many causes and types of dementia. As the condition progresses, and healthy tissue around damaged brain tissue begins to succumb to its neighboring tissues damaging effects, changes can occur (behavioral, social, even personality changes can happen).
Communication limitations make it hard for a person living with dementia to feel understood. The church is in a unique, and dare I say, biblically mandated position to enter into the worlds of persons living with dementia, letting them know through hymns and the reading of scripture, and the sharing of communion that God understands them, loves them, and remembers them.
God does not forget us. When memories begin to fade and it becomes hard to communicate with persons living with dementia, there is a truth that rings loud and clear. Every person at any time can lean on everlasting arms that remind us that we are not alone. A creator who made us and loves us is watching us, listening to us, remembering us.
God has a revolutionary message to share with a society that worships youth (for which the church is the mouthpiece): where society would leave older adults behind, rejecting them as irrelevant, God would have older adults to join in the work of bringing God’s kingdom of love to earth, as God’s beloved, never forgotten children.