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Religion Makes Difference in Dementia Patients' Lives

 One of the most heartbreaking aspects of watching a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or another cause of dementia, is not being able to connect with them.

But a local chaplain is bringing a spiritual approach to caring for those suffering from dementia.

And she's seen evidence that religious ritual can rekindle memory.
 
Chicago Public Radio's religion reporter Jason DeRose has the story.

One note: the names of the dementia patients and their families have been changed to protect their privacy.

***

From the first time it happened, Joseph realized something was seriously wrong with Mildred, his wife of almost 60 years.

JOSEPH: She would awake during the middle of the night. Get out of bed and go running out the front door down the street. And I'd have to go running after her to retrieve her.

Those nights, in pajama bottoms and a nightgown, Joseph would take Mildred's hand and walk her back home. Shortly thereafter, doctors diagnosed Mildred with dementia. In the following months, caring for Mildred began to take its toll on Joseph.

JOSEPH: The feeding and the clothes and the washing and the bathing. It was too much for me to handle and I wasn't able to hire anybody to help.

Joseph talked with his children about what to do. He spoke with his pastors as well.

JOSEPH: They helped me make the decision. It's a very difficult decision to make. I did a lot of prayer.

Joseph and Mildred are life-long Presbyterians, so when he decided to move her to the Presbyterian Home's memory care unit, it was in part because he knew they could worship together there. Still he had no idea their spiritual life would eventually play a role in their ability to connect to one another despite her dementia.

HYMN: Spirit of the Living God

Janet Aldrich leads this worship serivce in the 80-person memory care unit at Presbyterian Homes in Evanston, where Mildred now lives. Aldrich has been a chaplain here for more than a decade. And it was during worship serivces like this one that she began to notice something remarkable.

ALDRICH: A lot of it is just about reaching back to the most deep seeded memories because those last almost throughout the lifetime.

HYMN: Spirit of the Living God

Here's what Aldrich sees: when the song and scripture begin, many of those suffering from dementia sit unresponsive, some with their heads slumped against their chests. Mildred is here, too, in her wheel chair, fiddling with a piece of paper. But during the 20 minute service many of these residents lift their eyes... and start to sing.

HYMN: Spirit of the Living God

People who cannot remember their own children's names remember the words to familiar hymns. They recite the Lord's Prayer and other well-know parts of worship. Aldrich calls this "spiritual memory." And she sees it help unite a couple like Mildred and Joseph. Joseph agrees.

JOSEPH: As a person that I humbly present of faith, it's strengthening to me and I think probably it's contagious for her too to hear the music, hear the prayers, hear the pastor's message.

CHAVIN: The part of the brain that first gets affected by Alzheimer's Disease is the part that stores new memory. The parts of the brain that store long term memory are affected later in the disease.

Melanie Chavin is the vice president of the Alzheimer's Association of Greater Illinois. She says one of the hardest things for family members of loved ones with dementia is that they don't really know if, say, visiting grandma makes a difference. Is she still really there if she doesn't know you who are or can't have a conversation about today or even five years ago? Chavin says worship arouses what she calls over-learned memories--the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm.

CHAVIN: So if you're a person who's worshiped your whole life, been a faithful person who went to church every Sunday or just liked to sing the hymns, they're you're going to remember those things way into the disease.

ALDRICH: Our Old Testament reading is the 23rd Pslam. Feel free to join in as you want. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

But these worship services aren't just about remembering the past. They're designed to help engage residents in this present moment. So, in addition to traditional hymns and scripture, chaplain Janet Aldrich works to provoke the other senses. That's why she's tied red streamers to a fan for this Penecost service--a symbol of the presense of the Holy Spirit. She also hands out red carnations. And if you've ever smelled a snuffed-out church candle, you can imagine why she sought special permission to use real fire.

ALDRICH: There is just a treasure house of imbedded spiritual memory that just has to be tapped. And it's exciting when you realize whatever I have done in the design of the service has worked at least with someone.

MILDRED: Hi there Jason. Hello. Just put that thing down in front of you.

After the worship service, Mildred and Joseph make their way to the dining room. Joseph still lives at home, but never misses supper here with Mildred. They sit next to each other. Joseph looks lovingly at Mildred. Mildred holds the red carnation from the Pentecost service. Chaplain Aldrich and I join them. 

MILDRED: Did you enjoy the worship service? Of course. Do you always come to the worship service? This is the first one I've been to because I live very close by, so I have to be careful where I go. But I liked it.

This isn't Mildred's first time. She's lived her for two years. But Joseph and chaplain Aldrich have learned that correcting Mildred only makes her anxious. Comforting Mildred is a matter of pastoral care. Still, this isn't a one-way street. There's something Mildred offers Joseph as well.

JOSEPH: When I come here to be with her and try to comfort her, an amazing peace and serenity comes over me. And I feel healthier.

Joseph says that serenity is more than physical, mental or emotional. It's a deeply spiritual peace. And a form of connection--soul to soul--he never imagined making with his wife at this stage in her dementia and their life together. I'm Jason DeRose, Chicago Public Radio.

HYMN: Surely the Presence of the Lord is In This Place

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