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The Villages
Thursday, April 18, 2024

Houses of worship must open doors to those with dementia

Carol Wolf
Carol Wolf

More than 6 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s and by 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million! Currently, 10 percent of the 6 million Americans that have Alzheimer’s live in Florida! Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the most common form of dementia in 60-80 percent of all diagnosed cases.

There are 151,000 individuals living in The Villages.  According to the Florida Department of Health in Sumter County (where I live) 57% of Sumter’s population is over 65 years of age.  Sumter County has the highest concentration of residents over 65 years old in the United States!  Age is the primary risk factor for dementia and it is estimated that Sumter County alone has over 10,000 individuals that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In addition, it is estimated that approximately 30% of Sumter County residents have some type of dementia.  This logically means approximately 30% of house of worship members have some type of dementia!

There are several houses of worship in The Villages that offer internal programs and/or services to individuals with dementia. Those entities need to be highly commended!  They are the ones that we must call progressive, responsive, compassionate, and yes, loving!  Unfortunately, many houses of worship do not provide specialized internal programs for individuals with dementia, resulting in these individuals with dementia (and their caregivers) lacking adequate support.

It is imperative for individuals with dementia to feel included and involved in their house of worship to avoid isolation, depression, and anxiety, which is often associated with the disease.  In addition, belonging and participating in a worship group or program develops their spiritual life, thus contributing to better physical and mental health and their overall well-being.  Inclusion in worship services and programs also brings a sense of value and dignity making those individuals feel acknowledged and respected. Worship services can also provide memories and rituals for these individuals (such as hymns and prayers) which can invoke memories and emotions which become sacred moments for them.

Houses of worship need to evaluate how they are serving these members and develop creative, flexible, and accommodating programs/services.  Even minor adjustments and adaptations can make a significant difference. 

There are many ways for houses of worship to address this issue and create a more inclusive environment for those affected by dementia. Examples would be hosting support groups for people living with dementia and/or their caregivers; creating dementia social gatherings (such as coffee-break gatherings); respite programs;  memory cafes (which are NOT a new concept as they have been prominent throughout the United States since 2008 and are often found in houses of worship!), and most importantly creating worship services tailored to meet the faith needs of those with dementia! As an example, I am a member of one of the largest parishes in The Villages area and there are no internal programs, events, or services for individuals with dementia or their caregivers. At the very least, there should be a “dementia communion service” (of approximately 15-20 minutes) offered once a week for those individuals (and their caregivers) who are unable to sustain attending a regular structured hour worship service. 

I am asking every house of worship to step back and ask themselves “What internal services, programs, and/or events are we providing to our members with dementia and their caregivers”?

In conclusion, houses of worship can play a vital role in supporting people with dementia. By creating dementia-forward services, programs and events, faith communities can help those affected by dementia to continue worshiping and participating in their spiritual life. Houses of worship, please open your doors to those with dementia!

Villager Carol Ann Wolf is a certified dementia practitioner.

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