When the symptoms of dementia start affecting a person’s life, being part of a local community can help retain a sense of identity and connectedness. To mark the start of Dementia Awareness week, we hear from one of our supporters and how joining her local church helped her grandmother, who was living with dementia.
“Towards the end of her life, my grandmother suffered from dementia, a condition that had also affected her mother and her grandmother. Always an active and positive person, my mother, sister and I were distressed to witness my grandmother literally becoming someone else that we didn’t recognise – someone who was often tearful, confused or sometimes aggressive. She had moved in with our family when my sister and I were small to help my mother look after us as our mother worked full-time. For me, for whom she was my primary carer pre-school, it was especially upsetting to witness her memory loss. By the end of her life she had no idea who I was – confusing me with a school friend of my mother’s who she often chided for her bad behaviour and ‘loose morals’.
“As a GP, my father was the first to recognise the symptoms of dementia and came up with a plan he thought might help. We suggested to my grandmother that she come with us to the family service at our local church. He knew that she would be welcomed by the vicar and congregation, who all knew us well, and felt that it could be positive for my grandmother to join in with the service and meet with others for coffee in the church hall.
“When we first suggested to her that she come with us to our local church on Sunday mornings, we all expected a determined ‘no’ from her. But instead she eagerly agreed and hurried up the stairs to fetch her handbag. Sitting next to her in the pew, I noticed that she struggled to follow the service, but during the hymns she really brightened up and joined in with enormous enthusiasm.
“After the service, we took her along to coffee in the church hall where she chatted to members of the congregation. I think she was just really pleased to be part of things again.
“The next Sunday, my grandmother couldn’t remember having been to church the week before, but was still keen to go, saying that she remembered loving hymns in church when she was young. She started coming along every week and had soon signed up to a coffee morning during the week, when a group of older members of the congregation would meet up in the church hall to chat and pray. My mother would take her there – she would lose her way if she went on her own, even though the church hall was at the top of our road. My grandmother couldn’t usually remember people’s names, or even why she was there, but she still enjoyed chatting to the group about her family and reminiscing about the war. Her childhood and youth were still remembered with great clarity. One of the group would walk her home, so my mother was able to leave her, which gave her a much-needed break.
“I thought that being involved in our church might slow down the progress of my grandmother’s dementia. Sadly though her symptoms grew worse and she had to move to a nursing home. But attending church and having the support of a group of local parishioners provided her with an external focus. The routine and friendship of her coffee morning group really improved her mood and seemed to make her more positive. Becoming a part of a church community and feeling welcomed really made a difference to my grandmother and to our whole family.”
Livability and Alzheimer’s Society have worked together to create a new church resource, Developing Dementia-Friendly Churches, which offers advice to help churches create welcoming and accessible communities for those living with dementia.