What is a dementia friendly church?

Dementia Friendly Churches include and welcome people with dementia and build on recent government policy towards dementia friendly communities.  Churches are often an important focal point and source of support within the local community, and contribute towards its ‘social capital’.  This idea of ‘church’ draws on an inclusive approach which sees church as displaying types of interaction, patterns of worship, and styles of community engagement that makes the love of God visible and personal, and contributes to people’s well being, flourishing, and hope.
dementia friendly
While churches seeking to be ‘dementia-friendly’ will draw on a range of sources such as the Bible, the Church, Theology and Christian writers, they should also listen to what people with dementia and their family carers.  People with dementia are at the centre of dementia-friendly churches and churches should hear what they are saying, offer them what they want, and support them in their personal journey.   

‘Dementia-friendly church’ is a new idea and little work has been undertaken on what people with dementia and their families would want from a dementia-friendly church.  We do know however that people with dementia can often find churches unaccommodating and unfriendly places. 

People not wanting to be involved in a dementia-related church should have their wishes respected: however, people who do want to be involved should be welcomed and offered hospitality, as they find people who will listen to their story and find worthwhile support and encouragement.    
The Joseph Rowntree study Dementia Without Walls sought the views of people, mainly in the early stages of dementia who were living at home in York.  The study highlights four key areas or ‘cornerstones’ upon which dementia friendly communities are built: people, place, networks and resources.  These cornerstones are helpful and offer insights about what a dementia friendly church might look like.  

Dementia-friendly church as people

Churches comprise groups of people within a local community who follow Jesus Christ and who want to share their faith collectively, and offer practical support to others.  Other people have a significant effect on people’s lives, and are an important source of support in times of difficulty, such as when a person has dementia or when a person is supporting a relative with this condition.  Other people, by what they say and do, can also effect how people feel about themselves and will contribute to a person’s sense of identity and well being.  Again, this includes people with dementia and their family carers.   Dementia-friendly churches recognise that positive and supportive relationships are important to the well being of people with dementia and are best supported by people who are ‘dementia aware’ and who will take time to listen to their story, support them as they continue their journey, and provide them with a means of gaining hope.      

Dementia-friendly church as place

People often identify with a ‘church as a place’ and associate a church building with past and sometimes emotional memories.  Church buildings are part of what defines a local community and contributes to their collective sense of identity.  Churches are often the place where significant and memorable life events have happened such as marriages and funerals.  A ‘church as a place’ also caters for people’s present sense of who they are, and can offer the local community a range of activities that build up the spiritual and relational life of the community. 
Consideration should be given to how physical space is negotiated, organised and managed in different church buildings, during a range of different church activities, and how it supports people with dementia for example, their need for orientation, their physical needs, their need for safety, and their ability to worship.

Dementia-friendly church as a resource

Churches offer local communities an important and valuable resource which supports its members and promotes their inclusion within the church, and the wider community.  As a group of people with different skills and abilities, dementia-friendly communities are
committed to supporting local communities address the needs and wishes of people with dementia and promote their well being.  The ability of a dementia-friendly church to be an appropriate and effective resource depends on the skills and training of its members, the quality of its leadership, and its ability to maintain its distinctiveness, while displaying flexibility and responding to voice of people with dementia and their carers.

Dementia-friendly church as a network

Dementia-friendly churches exist within a social network comprising relationships between other people, agencies and organisations that contribute towards ensuring the well-being of people with dementia.  These networks include health and social care professionals, the private and voluntary, and family friends and neighbours.  Dementia-friendly churches have an important place in this network and exist in relationship and work with others, who offer support to people with dementia.

While communication between the dementia-friendly church and other members of the network will often have face-to-face contact, developments within Information Technology mean that social networks may also be enhanced through internet-based sources such as web sites, discussion groups, Skype and email.     

It envisaged that the number of people with dementia will increase dramatically over the next 30 years, and it is anticipated that the Government will take less responsibility to provide resources and increasingly adopt a more regulatory role.  Within this context, people with dementia and their family carers will need to look more towards indigenous sources of support that lie within the family and local community.  The church is one such source of support and through the development of dementia-friendly churches can help people with dementia, promote their well being, and offer them hope.  
Trevor Adams, 09/05/2013
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