Divine Delight in Dementia Visits
By Rev. Steve Klotz
Today in the U.S., more than 4 million people have Alzheimer's disease and related forms of dementia. That number will climb dramatically in coming years. They are our mothers and fathers, whom Scripture commands us to honor. They are our church and community elders, whom the Old and New Testaments call us to respect and provide for. They are among "the least of these" and our "neighbors," whom Jesus teaches us to serve with compassion.
Here are steps toward friendship-building and faith-sharing visits with individuals with Alzheimer's disease.
Within almost every extended family, congregation, and community, there are individuals with Alzheimer's-type dementia who would benefit from a personal visit. Many live at home with assistance from family members and professional caregivers. Some live in assisted living and skilled nursing centers. Begin by choosing someone you know or have connections with, through your church or community involvements.
If possible, ask a member of the person's family, or a long-time friend, to tell you about her* life, including her spiritual life and practices. (*I'll use the feminine pronoun throughout this article, as women live longer and outnumber men in their older years. The same attitudes and approaches do apply with men, however. — SK) Inquire about significant events from earlier years. Find out if this individual would enjoy your visit. Insights from church friends, neighbors, and personal care staff can also help.
Focus Your Approach
Before entering, admit any anxieties and distractions to God and yourself, and leave them at the door. Mentally and spiritually prepare for an enjoyable, fulfilling visit. Take some deep breaths and relax. Remember that the Lord is with you and has a deep love for the person you're visiting. As you enter, stop and assess the atmosphere of the room. Carefully observe the person. Notice her facial expression, eye position and movements, pace of breathing, and body language. Is there a discernible mood or emotion that should form your approach?
Enter with Empathy
Approach the individual slowly and directly in her line of sight. Say her name until she acknowledges you — by words or by eye contact.
Bend or kneel to get just below her eye level. Move in close so you can be readily seen and heard. As the disease progresses, her world of awareness becomes smaller and closer. Initiate a handshake and introduce yourself. Tell her why you are there. Ask if you may visit for a little while.
Take on her tone and pace as your own. Reflect her mood in your words and expression. If she seems agitated, mirror her tone, saying, "You seem agitated today. Are you?" If she appears sad or lonely or nervous, do the same.
Ask simple, present-oriented questions. "What have you been doing today? How have you been? How are things with your family?" These give you glimpses into her perception of the present.
If she expresses strong emotion, assist her, helping her put it into words. She may say, "I want to go home right now." You might respond, with a similar tone of voice, "Home is important to you, isn't it? What do you miss the most about your home?"
Avoid "Do you remember?" questions. Those with memory loss always fail this type of quiz, and they know it. Instead, have her tell you about her childhood, her work, her family of origin.
Build a Faith Bridge
Ask her what part of church she liked the best. Use her answers to guide the rest of your visit. If she says prayer, pray for her and begin the Lord's Prayer. If music, sing a hymn with her that she would know. If Scripture, read an encouraging, familiar passage. If people, bring others from your congregation with you the next time.
If she says she didn't go to church, ask her when she has felt close to God. Or ask what she would like to ask God if she had the chance. If she stumbles trying to answer a question, reword it. Employ an either/or question with two choices, such as, "At church, did you like the music or the sermon more?" Ask the extreme, such as "What's the hardest thing to understand about trusting the Lord?" or "What things have made you the happiest (or saddest) in life?"
Sometimes, the person may not respond to your questions. In that case, draw upon your background information. Hold her hand in yours, unless she resists. Read a familiar Bible passage, sing or hum a well-known hymn, tell her of God's love and presence, and offer prayer, concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
Make a Grace-Full Exit
A good visit may only last 10 minutes. At the end, thank her by name. Offer to pray before you go. Tell her when you will come again, and follow through with it.
As soon as you can, talk about this visit with someone at your church — a friend, Sunday school teacher or classmate, Bible study partner, pastor. Fill them in on what went well, what you'd like to improve, and how you hope to include other people the next time.
Making personal, compassionate visits to people with Alzheimer's disease can be a dynamic display of the sustaining and uplifting power of Christ — to the people with the disease, to their families and friends, to your church and community, and to you.
The Rev. Stephen Karl Klotz is Director of Chaplaincy Services, Country Meadows Retirement Communities, 830 Cherry Drive, Hershey, PA 17033; 717-533-2474, ext. 1007; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reproduced by permission from Center Sage Fall 2004 newsletter. Contact: Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., email@example.com; 877-899-2780 Ext. 7173.
This article was originally posted on November 17, 2004.