“Forsake me not, O God, in mine old age, when I am gray headed” Psalm 71.16
It’s been drawn to my attention (over the course of a whole day at Church House) that the Church of England is only just cottoning on to the need to make our worship, our churches and our congregations more accessible to the elderly and to people with dementia (not necessary the same people). Alongside the work we do for children, we need to think about how we enable people to age creatively.
This seems counter-intuitive, I know: our congregations, by and large, are full of older folk, what else do we need to do? But how do we value them? Speak to them as are in the ‘fourth age’ (80 years+) and they often speak of being marginalised and ignored. As their mobility, their hearing and sight and their ‘usefulness’ lessens, they risk being side-lined. So how do we counter the pervasive social assumption that age is decline and diminishment, and to celebrate the keener spiritual thirst of our older brothers and sisters? How do we build a community in which frailty and change are part of the scaffold of our relationships?
Our response is essentially threefold – liturgical, pastoral and cultural – and is worth hinging on a focus on dementia-friendly approaches (on the basis that what’s good for people with dementia, and their supporters, is good for a much wider group of people).
- It is worth thinking about having a monthly service for people with cognitive deterioration – as we do for them just building up their cognitive skills ;
- Consider an annual celebration of the Fourth Age and/or an annual service of ‘lament’ for carers and those facing a deterioration of their cognition;
- Godly Play is increasingly recognised as working well with dementia sufferers, and indeed with congregations of ‘mixed ability’;
- ‘Vintage Messy‘ is a newly forming spin-off of Messy Church and worth exploring;
- Think more proactively about inclusion in the same way as we do for other groups –
- Do we leave times of silence for people to digest what has been said?
- Could we make available art and sensory objects to help people engage at a non-verbal level?
- How repetative is our worship? Are there regular prayers, responses or patterns that are easily recognised or learned?
- What does incarnational look like, when the focus of cognition is absent or elusive?
- How well are we providing support (pastoral and sacramental) for them as cannot come to church?
- What is our relationship with any local care homes? (Where there are many, is it possible to ‘spread the load’ with other nearby parishes?)
- How well do we support local care homes mark transition within their community (arrivals/illnesss/marking the death of residents)?
- Do we pay attention to the staff and careers around the residents in care homes?
- Can we support the recognition of spiritual needs in a care plan assessment?
- Can we support the creation of a faith/sensory room/area with objects and art to help residents reflect spiritually?
- Consider training ‘buddies’ – people resourced and trained to support people who are less mobile or suffering with dementia – or even Anna Chaplains/Friends.
Cultural – habits of respect and mutuality:
- How do we talk about the older people in our congregation and in our community?
- Create a culture of hospitality and inclusion that accepts the more erratic behaviour of dementia sufferers.
- How does our theology encourage a sense of self that is deeper than intellectual cognition?
- Do we have a sense of the ‘enduring self‘ that is of worth even when hidden or fragmented?
- If a person is ‘praying without understanding’ how do we understand their relationship with God?
- Consider becoming a ‘dementia friendly organisation‘.
- Rochester Diocese guidance on Anna Chaplaincy: Anna Chaplaincy booklet
Some notes on Cumbria’s project to make every church dementia-friendly: Cumbria DFC note 060417
- Some notes on Dementia and music
- A ‘twiddle muff‘ pattern.
- Literature and websites from Church House: Resources handout
- Sarum college have collected some resources for worship and reflecting on worship in the context of cognitive decline: http://www.sarum.ac.uk/learning/the-arts/resources-library/dementia-resources
 AKA ‘children’.