Five Benefits of Spiritual Care for Older Adults with Dementia

Upcoming webinar: Why—and How—to Provide Spiritual Care to Older Adults with Dementia,” Thursday, August 6, 4 p.m. ET 

By Chaplain Elisa Bosley

It is a grave mistake to assume that dementia prevents or destroys spiritual beliefs and the desire for a sacred connection. In our August 6 webinar, “Why—and How—to Provide Spiritual Care to Older Adults with Dementia,” Chad Federwitz, MA, gerontologist and Senior Services Manager in Pitkin County, CO, and I will provide reasons and practical tips for meeting this important need.

What follows are five ways that people who have Alzheimer’s and other dementias benefit from spiritual and/or religious care provided in a long-term care residence.

Peace. For older adults with dementia, the world can seem confusing and chaotic. Spiritual care offers assurance that they are not alone—that God, or their own conception of a higher power, is with them, always and without fail. They are not forgotten.

When elders who have dementia interact with sacred texts, poetry, song and experience, they grasp ineffable assurances of the uninterrupted presence and love of a higher being. Although that understanding may not last, the peace felt from it often lingers. Elders who have dementia take comfort from their religious beliefs and truths, even if they can’t verbalize their feelings.

Sense of Purpose. Interactive scripture studies, nondenominational worship services, hymn singing, creative arts and other spiritual and religious practices give older adults who have dementia the chance to actively contribute to a social, group dynamic. Older adults’ purpose during these times is not a fiction. They have wisdom to offer.

Interactive spiritual care highlights an elder’s remaining strengths and abilities rather than any weaknesses. Every act, comment or facial expression is part of their purpose in that moment.

Dignity. Providing spiritual care programming to people who have dementia confers the respect and dignity they’ve earned as elders—and they understand that and appreciate it. More than once, older adults have said to me, “I love this [interactive] format; you don’t just read to us. I love that we all talk together. You don’t talk to us like we’re children.”

Failure to provide meaningful spiritual activities does a great disservice to people who may have grown up attending and contributing to their community places of worship. They were often leaders in their congregations (greeters, Sunday school teachers, cantors), and this part of their identity still matters to them. Spiritually focused tasks honor this part of their life history rather than dismissing it or assuming it’s “gone.” It respects older adults as very much alive, active people.

Hope. Spiritual care offers a glimpse of hope beyond the distressing realities of daily life. Prayers, readings, sacred music, rituals such as Communion or a Passover Seder or guided meditation—all provide recognizable paths for elders (and caregivers!) to receive blessing and hope in their difficult journey. Providing spiritual care helps older adults to take comfort, even if just for a moment, in the idea that there is a bigger picture than what they currently see and feel.

Quality of Life. Nearly any kind of participatory activity—bingo, art, trivia games—yields general happiness, calm and well-being for those who have Alzheimer’s and other dementias. But too often, participatory spiritual activities are missing from long-term care programming. Research published in International Psychogeriatrics and the Western Journal of Nursing Research indicates that religious involvement correlates to better quality of life in older adults—including better treatment compliance.

For more detail on this topic, as well as ready-to-use methods for providing spiritual care on a budget, tune in to the webinar today, Why and How to Provide Spiritual Care to Older Adults With Dementia

A Few Simple Spiritual Care Activities

These are from a Christian perspective, but can be modified for any spiritual practice.

  • Read sacred texts together. For any faith, many of the biblical Psalms are comforting and appropriate; try Psalms 16, 23, and 27. When discussing a text in a group, encourage able older adults to read part or all of the passage aloud. Make sure it’s printed in very large type.
     
  • Recite well-known liturgical elements with them: The Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), Hail Mary, Psalm 23 (The Lord is My Shepherd). Speak slowly and clearly. Make eye contact.
     
  • Sing! Many classic hymns and spirituals are deeply comforting and familiar. Good choices for one-on-one or group singing include “In the Garden,” “Amazing Grace,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Find dozens more at SpiritualEldercare.com.
     
  • When offering a simple, nondenominational worship service (attend the webinar to learn how), ask older adults to help by passing around songbooks, arranging the table, welcoming gathering congregants. Don’t worry if they don’t “get it right”—the host can subtly adjust things later if needed.
     
  • If appropriate, pray with them. If someone has a specific need (even if they can’t verbalize it), ask if you can pray for them right then and there. Keep it short—maybe 30 seconds. Hold their hand and pray fairly loudly. Bless them specifically and genuinely with God’s comfort and presence.

Elisa Bosley is a licensed nondenominational Christian chaplain with a special ministry to older adults, particularly those who have dementia. She offers free, dementia-friendly spiritual care resources, including dozens of hymn downloads and Bible discussion guides, at SpiritualEldercare.com. You can email her at elisa@spiritualeldercare.com.