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  • Debbie Ducille

How well do churches and church leaders understand dementia?

Anna Chaplains contributed to research at the University of Aberdeen led by Dr Jennifer Riley and BRF Ministries vice president Professor John Swinton, looking at how theological education might prepare clergy for their ministry alongside people living with dementia. The report on the research is now published and is entitled ‘Educating for Inclusive, Caring Communities; what kind of education to clergy and ordinands require in order to include and care for people living with dementia and their carers and supporters?’ (You can read it here.)

The study considered the needs of clergy in the UK and Australia. Its broad conclusion is that theological education institutions need to do more to integrate dementia education into their curricula to better prepare clergy for inclusive ministry. How people with dementia are included and supported is a touchstone for broader questions of inclusivity. Alongside classroom learning, colleges need to enable practical placements for hands-on learning. Ongoing training will enable clergy to be informed of best practice in dementia care. The report concludes with a call to action for Theological Education Institutions for enhancing their approach to dementia education.

Earlier research, according to the report, has demonstrated that well-informed churches can make a significant contribution to the well-being of people affected by dementia. Anna Chaplaincy seeks to contribute to dementia awareness in congregations, as well as providing direct support to individuals, and we can attest to this truth. Enabling people with dementia and their carers to feel welcome and valued makes a significant contribution to their resilience and spiritual well-being. The picture is varied, however, particularly where the preoccupation in church leadership is in growing younger congregations.

A great strength of this research is its involvement of people with dementia and their carers through interviews. Many spoke about their faith remaining firm and having a sense of God journeying with them through their dementia, of having conversations with God and feeling he is there. Some spoke of their Christian community being a source of love and hope in their dementia. Understandably, dementia had raised faith questions for some. One participant spoke strongly of her sense that churches needed to know people with dementia like her can be ‘spiritually alive. That’s so important because the spiritual never dies – never dies.’

Some participants in the research felt well supported spiritually, others less so. They gave ideas for how churches could be more inclusive of people with dementia including taking church to them when they were living in care settings – very much the goal of Anna Chaplaincy. Ideas were shared for making liturgy, worship and sacraments more accessible, taking account of cognitive challenges and the stress and confusion caused by navigating complicated service books. Some made the case for dedicated services for people with dementia, while others spoke of the importance of worshipping with the entire church family.

There were comments on the need to encourage people with dementia to continue to contribute and exercise their gifts, but also for them to be valued simply for who they are, that it’s ‘not just including people to be nice to them. But including people in communities because we learn from them – we benefit’. The importance of Christian fellowship through the stages of dementia was emphasised by respondents, with some speaking warmly of the kindness of their churches, but others saying the congregation treated the person with dementia as a ‘nonperson’.

Alongside interviews with people directly affected by dementia, the research explored theological education and spoke with those able to comment on what is needed. Though positive inclusive leadership was felt to be key, the development of skilled and committed pastoral care teams was signalled as necessary in ensuring a focus on dementia. Themes arose, such as the prevalence of ‘ageist prejudice’ in church life, and assumptions about ‘cognitive norms’. Dementia’s capacity to touch upon numerous areas of theology was identified, and so its relevance to many of the key questions.

While recognising curriculum pressures, the report provides several options for developing dementia education within theological education institutions, from scheduling lectures on dementia (perhaps within pastoral care or disability theology modules) to integrating questions about dementia throughout the curriculum. Practical placements followed by opportunities for theological reflection were also put forward as a helpful strategy. The report even points to a successful project at Brighton and Sussex Medical School and Surrey University where trainee medicine and healthcare students were linked with people with dementia on a befriending basis for a project called Time for Dementia. Could a befriending scheme for ministerial candidates ensure they gained firsthand experience of working with people with dementia?

Recommendations for churches at the end of the report signpost a helpful resource on dementia-friendly churches produced by Churches Together in Greater Bristol. This research is helpful reading for Anna Chaplains, and everyone concerned for the spiritual well-being of those living with dementia. It would be hopeful to think in ten years the research recommendations for better theological education will have been implemented in institutions in Australia and the UK so that those being equipped for ministry feel equipped and motivated to create inclusive churches where people with dementia thrive.



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