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Catholic Vancouver June 4, 2018

Beyond physical care: how to reach people with dementia spiritually 

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Dr. Gemma Jones (left) during a visit to Vancouver, where she taught courses on celebrating spirituality with and offering support to people with dementia. (Photos courtesy Rob Patterson)

Even if a person can’t perform everyday tasks or form full sentences anymore, there are still ways to reach them in a deeply profound way.

Dr. Gemma Jones, the founder of the UK’s first Alzheimer’s Café, said spiritual care is vital in helping ease the suffering of people with dementia.

“You can’t ask people without language ... ‘What’s your philosophy in life,’ or ‘What does your religion mean to you,’ or ‘Do you have a personal spirituality?’”

Jones, who visited Vancouver to teach a course on dementia and spirituality, said there is a multitude of other ways to comfort the souls of people with dementia – and Catholics are at an advantage.

“As people progress through a dementing illness (and there are more than 100 types), the better able you are to understand where a person is in the course of their illness, the more you’re able to adapt symbols, stories, and music, so they can participate, comprehend, or say things,” said Jones.

When people are losing language abilities, she said there are many ways to help them connect to a liturgy or spiritual practice, regardless of faith background.

“They may respond to being in a little, closed circle together, feeling other people and the warmth of them, and seeing a candle, and hearing a familiar song or lovely story,” she said.

She added Catholics especially have many options available to them.

“Catholics have such advantages because they have such a tight model in the Mass and all sensory things you can do to make the Mass beautiful. We have bells, we have smells, we have colours, we have beautiful shapes, windows, we have so many things people can latch onto and recognize.”

Gemma Jones teaches a course on dementia at the Carey Theological College in Vancouver.

When a person’s illness progresses, it may be harder for them to participate in a Mass.

“It’s the later stages that we often don’t know what to do. What do you do if someone can’t speak in sentences anymore? What do you do when someone is frightened of the dark or they don’t see well enough so the moment it’s dark, they don’t know where they are and become frightened and cry? Mostly people would be left out of liturgies as they approach the latter stages,” said Jones.

But it doesn’t have to be the case, said Jones. In later stages of the illness, many familiar symbols can still touch hearts of those with dementia.

For example, “the Rosary, for many, many people, still has a feeling of safety attached to it.”

For others, who perhaps are not Catholic or don’t have that connection to the Rosary, “just having their hands in a nice container of sand and seeing different shells and stones in it and deciding which one is most like them in life” could be a prompt “for them tell you that somehow or another life made them smooth, took all the roughness off them, and it was hard, but now it’s okay.”

And that reflection, verbal or nonverbal, is the reason Jones finds her work so rewarding.

“What more do you want, besides that someone is telling you somehow, in whatever limited way, in symbols, that this whole journey, through suffering and discovery, is okay?”

Being there for people with dementia, and connecting with them in ways they understand, is so crucial to caring for them, according to Providence Health Care’s Jo-Ann Tait.

“Research has shown that person-centred dementia care not only optimizes quality of life for people with dementia, it can actually foster positive outcomes for people afflicted by a disease normally steeped in fear and confusion,” she told The Vancouver Sun.

Connecting spiritually is one of those ways to touch their hearts and ease their pain.

No matter their ability, anyone can “give someone the feeling that they are not alone,” said Jones. “That’s boiling down to the whole meaning of Immanuel, eh? God with us. You’re not alone. If I can help you feel that through me being a symbolic presence for you, then we’ve celebrated whatever form of spirituality you have.”

This is the second article in a three-part series on dementia. See part one on how new Alzheimer's Cafe's are helping the community. Up next: ground-breaking efforts in Langley and Vancouver to care for people with the illness.