July 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 07
When memory fails
What to remember when caring for people with dementia
By Angeline Schellenberg | ChristianWeek Columnist
Photo by Ed Yourdon
Bible stories, memorized verses, our testimony of how God has changed our livesthese memories sustain our faith. But what does faith look like when memories deteriorate?
"Even though people may not always remember their life storytheir faith testimonythe God who has created them and redeemed them still hold them close and dear in His memory," says Ferdinand Funk.
As director of spiritual care at Bethania Mennonite Personal Care Home in Winnipeg, Funk offers residents a 30-minute life review experience every second week, centred around a topic of interest, from special occasions to relationships and emotions.
"We introduce the topic and share back and forth the specific memories people have," says Funk, paying close attention to "the spiritual memories this invokes."
For instance, leading into Mothers' Day, Funk invited the small group of participants to reflect, not on their experiences as parents, but on their own mothers. Funk recalls: "One gentleman expressed deep sadness that he experienced his mother as not being a gentle, nurturing person. This brought back some unpleasant memories we could address later on." That's the sort of response Funk is looking for, believing it's not too late "to build a bridge to some healing at this stage."
About one-third of Bethania's residents come from a Mennonite background. Chapel services are short, filled with familiar songs that may trigger memories from their childhoods in the church. Funk has found telling stories that connect an account from the Bible with the residents' personal lives to be powerful.
"Even though our memory may fail us, God's memory doesn't fail us," says Funk, a reminder he says is particularly helpful for pastoral care providers. "Sometimes I hear visitors say things like, 'What's the use? I'm going to see so-and-so, and three minutes after I leave, they don't remember I was there,'" he says. "It's important to realize it's not about the person providing the service; it's about letting the individual know that the community holds them in that collective spiritual memory.
"Even if they've forgotten their community and rituals of faith, the Church remains connected to them as valuable members of the spiritual community." Relationship is worth the effort, if only, for just a moment, to be the hands and feet of a redeeming God who says, "though [a mother] mayforget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands" (Isaiah 49:1516).
Angeline Schellenberg is a freelance writer and part-time copy editor. She holds a master’s degree in biblical studies from Providence Theological Seminary. Contact her at email@example.com