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.

Treitler said that even after more recent memories fade for those with dementia or Alzheimer's, the symbols and rituals of religion, usually learned in childhood, remain. "This is a service that is really focused on the past and reminiscing," he added.

New approach to dementia

The new approach to worship services is "fairly unconventional," Treitler said. But the philosophy behind them is in keeping with an updated way of looking at memory loss, one that's evolved over the past 15 years, he said.

Before, when someone with dementia said something that was rooted in past memories and no longer true, it would have been common practice to correct them. But that usually confuses the person even more, creating anxiety, he said.

Now, the emphasis is on validation, he said, and highlighting what people can do, rather than what they can't. That's why there's lots of praise when a resident plays an instrument or shares a story, he said.

The four Emerald Crest facilities, located in Burnsville, Victoria, Minnetonka and Shakopee, are all run by Augustana Care, a Minnesota-based nonprofit. Emerald Crest specializes in caring for people with memory problems.

Their model of care stresses keeping residents active and encouraging them to do as much as they can independently, Klein said. Days are filled with activities that involve sensory experiences, from baking to playing games.

In addition to being a pastor, Treitler is the organizational director of spiritual care for Augustana Care. He's developed a strong interest in spirituality for people with dementia, because "it's an area where spirituality can make a real difference," he said.

He's also working to build connections with Muslim and Jewish residents, he said.

Fern Gudmestad, 95, an Emerald Crest resident in Burnsville for almost two years, said she enjoys the services, especially the music. "I like his stories, and of course it's fun to sing," she said.

Sue Lundstrom said the weekly services, usually led by another pastor named Laura Snyder, have been "a very, very positive experience" for her mother, who is 92.

"Overall, when she comes in, I think every single resident participates in some way," she said. "They give her their full attention, they're alert."

Treitler said he loves interacting with residents during the services. "I do a lot of smiling, and that's intentional," he said. "I also smile because I'm really having fun."

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283