Culture At Large

Is ‘dementia village’ a model for the church?

Erica Schemper

When Nancy slipped too far into Alzheimer’s, something had to be done about her role in the annual rummage sale. A decade before, Nancy had been one of those people who did everything at church: ran the sale; organized a ladies’ circle; led the cherub choir; taught Sunday school. Slowly, members of the congregation had to figure out how to help her give up these roles.

For several years, they let Nancy putter around and feel useful during the sale. But finally, one year, it was too much work. Someone had to follow her at all times. She was unsteady on her feet. We worried about her wandering off.

Someone came up with a brilliant solution: she asked Nancy to sit at a chair in front of the doors that led to the narthex. We kept these doors closed during the sale, but occasionally someone would wander through. We asked Nancy to man the position. She felt useful. She was safe. And we knew where to find her. Most importantly, it was a way to keep her connected to the Body. We still needed Nancy.

When speaking about the future of the church, we often focus on the younger generations - occasionally Generation X but especially millennials. I’m well aware, as a pastor whose birth date puts me somewhere in between those two demographics, that these people are indeed the church of the future. But I also look at aging baby boomers and realize that they, too, are the future. How can we minister to those with dementia, especially as their numbers increase?

The idea of building a village has the ring of justice to my ears.

Comfort for those suffering from dementia often comes in the familiar: the smell of a favorite food; one line of a hymn; a facial expression reminiscent of a loved one. You never know what might trigger a moment when a mind that seems absent suddenly opens with recognition. But even in the best care facilities, one loses so much of the familiar: the entire outside world. In fact, even the best facilities have those frightening alarms on exterior doors. They’re a necessity, but also a reminder that the “normal” world is no longer safe for the residents.

In the Netherlands, an entire village has been designed to allow those with dementia to experience the familiar. About 150 people live in Hogewey – dubbed “dementia village” by some news outlets -  where more than 200 employees are in street clothes providing care. The residents shop and cook, live in home settings and engage in activities tailored to their interests. Perhaps there was a time when towns really could care for someone as their mind declined. But there’s simply no way that an industrialized society can step in and be the caring community for those in society who need us. And so the idea of building a village has the ring of justice to my ears.

Even if it’s too pricey to be practical for everyone, Hogeway has lessons for the church. Imagine, for example, a congregation where every member felt responsible for helping the sister or brother with dementia remain as much a part of the Body for as long as possible. What would it look like to provide not only meals and respite care, but also pew companions during worship; a place at the table during a potluck; continued connection to the activities that have been an essential for that person. And, taken a step further, what if this were not only a ministry to those who we knew and loved, but an outreach to some of the loneliest and their families.

At our best, we already do these things as church. But we may be called in the church of the future to be the village that recognizes the inherent humanity in the lives of those whose minds are fading. Sometimes the Body has the opportunity to be the village.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, World, Home & Family, Family