Giving people with dementia a new way to worship

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2014 - 3:27 PM

A group of assisted-living facilities has designed a service that helps people with dementia actively participate.

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Chaplain Alex Treitler worshiped with a small group at Emerald Crest in Burnsville on a recent Monday. Treitler helped design the services for people with dementia, emphasizing music, participation and a lot of props. “It’s more like a party than a service,” he says.

Photo: Richard Sennott , Star Tribune

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For many senior citizens, including those living in assisted-living centers, spirituality and religion play an important role in daily life.

But when seniors have memory loss, traditional church services can be confusing or just too long, especially because language skills and comprehension are among the first things to go.

With that in mind, Emerald Care, a group of four assisted-living centers across the south metro, has designed a simplified worship service that helps people with dementia actively participate and make connections to their own lives.

The services have been very successful, staff and family members say.

Theresa Klein, a cognitive clinical specialist at Emerald Crest, said that during the services, residents remain alert, smile and often join in singing. With more traditional services, some residents would have struggled to stay awake or understand what was going on, she said.

The informal worship services incorporate music and sensory experiences, including props and instruments. They also “focus on what [those with dementia] can do, rather than what they can’t do,” she said.

The nondenominational services — less than half an hour long — also incorporate a lot of eye contact, touching and discussion, she said.

‘More like a party’

A recent service at Emerald Care’s Burnsville location, for example, felt more like an interactive Sunday school class than an afternoon at church.

After shaking hands with the eight residents in attendance, the Rev. Alex Treitler began by leading the group in “Amazing Grace” and encouraging them to play chimes during the song. Almost every resident sang or mouthed the words, and when they were finished, Treitler clapped and praised their participation.

Then, it was time for a Bible story. Rather than reading the Old Testament story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, Treitler told a simplified version, piling on several scarves as he acted it out.

He also stopped to ask residents questions: Did they grow up in big families? Did siblings ever get into fights?

Mildred Randall, 84, one of six children, said: “Oh yes! I can’t say no.”

Treitler finished by administering communion and leading prayers with the group.

“I think a very big part of it is it’s very engaging,” Treitler explained. “It’s more like a party than a service.”

Treitler, along with several other staff members, began the process of creating the new kind of service about a year and a half ago.

For Treitler, rethinking services from the ground up allowed him to “completely re-evaluate what engages people at a deeper level,” he said.

Because music is a “universal language” and often tied to emotion and memories, it’s a big part of every service, Klein said.

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