Faith-Based Activities for People with Dementia

Meeting the Spiritual Needs of Those with Memory Loss

Woman with Dementia in Prayer
Woman in Prayer/ Jose Luis Pelaez Inc Collection: Blend Images /Getty Images.

When someone we love is struggling with the symptoms of Alzheimer's or a related dementia, we want the best care possible for them. And, according to research, that quality care should include a holistic approach—one that considers the needs of the body, mind and spirit.

Let's apply that holistic approach to activities for people with dementia. The need for meaningful activities has been well-documented in research, and there are many activities that engage the body and the mind.

While there is strong evidence that people with dementia can benefit from familiar spiritual activities and traditions, there are few resources that outline how best to do that. There's no "one size fits all" approach here since your choices will highly depend on the background of your patients or loved one, but here are a few faith-based activities to consider.

Music

Music can be very powerful for all of us, whether we have dementia or not. Many people have strong memories of faith-based songs they sang when they were younger, and when you're working with dementia, anything familiar is a blessing to people.

Prayer and Meditation

Offer to spend time together in prayer. Many people with dementia are calmed, encouraged and uplifted by prayer. This can be done in a group of several people or with just one person. In a world of confusion, memory loss, or difficulty finding the exact words, the practice of prayer can transcend some of those cognitive losses.

Read Familiar Passages Together

Many faiths have a holy book, such as the Bible. Take time to read some of those passages together. Those familiar words often provide a peace and sense of belonging that few other sources offer.

Reciting Favorite Verses or Prayers

Some people with dementia have certain verses and prayers they've committed to memory throughout their life.

Choose a passage that may have been memorized when they were younger and try encouraging them as a group to recite it together. You may be surprised at the level of participation.

Observe Traditions and Rituals

If your love one's background has regular, sacred events such as communion, see if you can make arrangements to have that offered in your home or the facility where your patients or loved ones live.

Celebrate Holy Times

Throughout the calendar, there are several holy celebrations and events for the different faiths. If possible, involved your loved one in commemorating those special times. The rhythm and routine of sacraments and faith-based celebrations may trigger deep memories within for the person with dementia.  

Religious Services

Some people with dementia might enjoy the familiar routine of a religious service. For others, the stimulation and larger group of people might be anxiety-provoking, so be sure to observe and respond to your loved one's reaction.

Religious Objects

The tactile experience of holding something meaningful in your hands can be powerful. For example, holding a necklace that has a symbol of faith attached or a sacred book may be meaningful for some people.

What if Dementia Seems to Have Robbed Them of Their Faith?

Sometimes, people living with the memory loss and personality changes that can occur within dementia may appear to have lost their lifelong faith. They may go through a stage where they neglect the practices they've always honored throughout their life, or momentarily act and speak in ways that directly conflict with their beliefs. 

Remember that unless your loved one had a change of heart prior to the onset of his dementia, the disease is very likely the reason for these changes. It's often best to go with the flow. If he doesn't want to listen to the hymns he used to enjoy with or uses words that are offensive to his faith, don't spend much energy worrying about those behaviors.

Instead, focus on other activities that he does enjoy, knowing that the comfort he always found in his faith will likely return, sometimes only moments later. Additionally, remember that although dementia may change the person, it doesn't change the object of their faith or erase the lifelong commitment that has been present. 

A Word from Verywell

The dimming of one's memory doesn't reduce the need to care for the whole person, including the very important area of spiritual health. According to interviews with those living with dementia, incorporating faith-based activities can improve quality of life and provide some much needed reassurance and hope during their many challenges.

Sources:

Daly, L., Fahey-McCarthy, E. and Timmins, F. (2016). The experience of spirituality from the perspective of people living with dementia: A systematic review and meta-synthesis. Dementia.

Ennis, E. and Kazer, M. (2013). The Role of Spiritual Nursing Interventions on Improved Outcomes in Older Adults With Dementia. Holistic Nursing Practice, 27(2), pp.106-113. DOI:  10.1097/HNP.0b013e318280f7f9

Ødbehr, L., Kvigne, K., Hauge, S., et al. (2015). Spiritual care to persons with dementia in nursing homes; a qualitative study of nurses and care workers experiences. BMC Nursing, 14(1).

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