Religion and Alzheimers Disease

By Betsy Van Loon

Before I started working with Companions for Living, I was a nursing home visitor for many years accompanied by my dog Noite.  These caring visits were sponsored by my church through a program called Stephen’s Ministry.  In order to learn more about visitation and pastoral care, I enrolled in course through Andover Newton Theological School.  As part of my course work, I read a wonderful article with a not so wonderful title.  It is: “Pastoral Care of Problematic Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Affected Residents in a Long Term Care Setting” by Rev. David Wentroble.

Rev. Wentroble has led Christian worship services for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia for many years.  He has some great advice on reaching out to touch the spiritual nature of people who seem to have lost that dimension of their lives.  His ideas are applicable to people of any faith tradition.  Research has shown that religious activities continue to be very important to people with Alzheimer’s disease and can help them cope with their dementia and memory loss.  Family, loved one’s and caregivers have to be very creative in order to provide religious activities that continue to be meaningful.  Fortunately, familiar rituals can offset even severe impairments of memory.  Even if someone with Alzheimer’s does not have a firm grasp on the present, they may easily remember songs and prayers learned in childhood.

If religious activities are (or were at some time in their life) important to someone you know, make sure they are attending appropriate services in their local place of worship, nursing home or assisted living facility.  You can supplement these gatherings with music, prayers and scripture reading of your own.  This does not need to be formal and you don’t need to be a minister, rabbi or priest.  During visits sing a familiar hymn or religious song, recite The Lord’ Prayer or Shema, and read from scriptures such as the 23rd psalm or another familiar passage.  I visited with an elderly Catholic woman for years.  I am Protestant and I had her teach me the rosary.  She would recite it to me each visit and I helped her hold the beads.

As one’s words and cognitive ability fade, symbols of faith can still elicit responses.  The appearance of a cross, a Star of David, touching a Bible, a prayer book or a rosary can spark emotions that connect to the religious activities of the past.  Rev. Wentroble suggests making a reminiscence packet for your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Bring it with you when you visit.  He has designed different packages for different faith traditions:

Catholic: Crucifix, rosary, scapular, sacred heart badge, statue of Mary, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, Hail Mary, Magnificat, mysteries of the Holy Rosary and prayer to the Sacred Heart.

Protestant: Bible (New King James Version), cross, traditional picture of Jesus, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments and Numbers 6: 24-26.

Jewish: Prayer book, yarmulkes, tallit, mezuzah, Star of David, Kiddush cup, and candlesticks.

Having your loved one hold and touch these kinds of familiar objects or listen to a familiar prayer or song can be a unique way of communicating when words are fading.  This can be very reassuring to someone with Alzheimer’s.  The memories of comforting religious activities can long outlast orientation to current time and place.