Making a difference

On 7 May, in my first week on the staff at BRF as Anna Chaplaincy church lead, I joined a webinar on faith and dementia during coronavirus. It was hosted by the 3 Nations Dementia Working Group, a collective across England, Wales and Northern Ireland who share the experience of dementia and want to make a difference while they still can.

I have long worked as a dementia specialist trainer and writer and know members of the working group well, having trained alongside them. In pioneering Anna Chaplaincy in Rochester Diocese since 2015, I have involved people with dementia and their carers in delivering training and developing ideas; listening to people’s stories is the best way to learn about dementia.

The 3 Nations panel discussed how people with dementia can practise their faith during lockdown, alongside broader questions on how faith changes with a diagnosis of dementia.

It was humbling to hear people of faith say that on diagnosis they questioned God but that they found scripture helpful in voicing their anger, and that faith has provided reassurance and hope and is a constant in times of change and uncertainty. A carer on the panel spoke of her husband rediscovering on diagnosis the faith he lost sight of as a young man.

‘Faith is a constant in times of change and uncertainty’

Our special concern for those with dementia

For Christians all over the world, Covid-19 has shaken our comfortable convictions and disrupted the ways we practise our faith. In Anna Chaplaincy, we are especially concerned for those living with dementia in their own homes and in care homes and for the friends and family members. As some of our most vulnerable citizens, they are shielded for their own safety.

Care home residents have lived for weeks now without the people most important to them. In a world that can be bewildering at the best of times, how can we explain social distancing to someone with little short-term memory who struggles with reasoning and language? However kind their care staff, do they feel abandoned by their nearest and dearest?

For those still living in their own homes, the isolation that is a risk in dementia when life is normal has become embedded. Carers, many elderly themselves, are left coping 24/7 without their usual breaks, with the stress of shielding a person who may want to be outdoors, visiting people and places that would be their normal routine.

‘How can we explain social distancing to someone who struggles with reasoning and language?’

Nurturing faith during Covid-19

If faith is a key source of resilience, as our 3 Nations Dementia Working Group panel testified, how can churches nurture it during Covid-19?

The panel discussed the impact of digital exclusion. While many older people have learned to use platforms like Zoom to keep in touch and join in worship, for those with dementia this has proved more challenging. Older people without access to the internet feel even more excluded by our reliance during lockdown on live streaming and other digital ways to offer church.

‘If faith is a key source of resilience, how can churches nurture it?’

Anna Chaplaincy is adapting

Anna Chaplaincy is adapting. Our regular blog has many examples of Anna Chaplains innovating, determined to continue their vital links with people with dementia.

They are working with care home staff to continue regular opportunities for worship. This may mean helping staff ensure Sunday services are streamed live into the care home, perhaps shown on a television in one of the lounges. We spoke at a local Anna Chaplaincy hub meeting in Kent last year about this as a distant aspiration – coronavirus made it happen!

Anna Chaplain Elizabeth Bryson from Maidstone has three care homes in her parish where she would usually be leading services in person. During lockdown she is leading services at one of the homes via Skype; she also holds individual services by telephone for some residents across the three homes – singing, reading the Bible and praying with each person.

Others have recorded services for care home staff to play to residents, they have delivered the Church of England’s prayer book for coronavirus, or laminated prayer cards that can be sanitised and include prayers for when a person is dying.

Anna Chaplains are publicising the Daily Hope free phone line and delivering handwritten cards of encouragement. In Southampton, members of the Anna Chaplaincy network based at Caraway raised funds to create small gifts for each member of staff in local care homes – a bar of chocolate, some hand cream, and a thank you card.

Sally Rees, Anna Chaplaincy lead for Wales,  has given copies of BRF’s Bible Reflections for Older People to local care homes so that they can be read to residents, and is sending her team resources to use in their regular phone calls to older people.

‘Anna Chaplains are determined to continue their vital links with people with dementia’

Relationships are deepening

For those still living in their own homes, regular Anna Chaplaincy phone calls are helping the person with dementia feel connected. Relationships are deepening as a consequence, and where the person wishes there is the sharing of a Bible passage and a time of prayer.

Time to Talk Befriending in Brighton and Hove is an intergenerational befriending project with two Anna Chaplains and seven Anna Friends. During lockdown they have continued to offer telephone chaplaincy to 42 individuals, several of whom have dementia. Time to Talk have produced guidelines on telephone befriending for their volunteers and have been delighted that regular 15-minute telephone calls to offer spiritual care to people with dementia have been working well.

A simple question like ‘What can you see from your window?’ has led to wonderful conversations. The Caraway team have adapted their popular Vintage Adventure so that it can be done at home, delivering materials by post or email; their first session focused on Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as they fished on Lake Galilee, with craft ideas and a recipe for a fish dish.

Anna Chaplains have also conducted funerals under the new social distancing rules, including for those who have died with Covid-19. This has included providing a simple form of words that mourners unable to attend the funeral in person can join in saying at home.

‘Much pastoral care and support will be needed, particularly in our care homes’

I am looking forward to working with our growing network of chaplains at the frontline of dementia care as we consider the implications of Covid-19 for spiritual care in dementia. Much pastoral care and support will be needed, particularly in our care homes as staff, residents and relatives recover from unprecedented trauma.

Please join us in praying for people with dementia, and all those who love and care for them.

Yellow rotary telephone on side table next to sofa: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Julia Burton-Jones

Julia Burton-Jones is a member of the Anna Chaplaincy staff team.

Resources from Anna Chaplaincy

Thinking of You

Written by Joanna Collicutt, this book is  recommended resource for people living with or caring for dementia sufferers.

Debbie Thrower’s blog

BRF’s pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy for Older People reflects on dementia.

Coronavirus advice

The Alzheimer’s Society helpful advice during the coronavirus for people living with dementia.

A prayer for those who have dementia

Lord God, who in Christ
Experienced helplessness and vulnerability,
Surround with your comfort
Those who at this time are twice locked-down,
With broken minds and fragile bodies.
Though they may not remember, who or where they are,
You are the God who always remembers.
Please hold their memories in safekeeping
Until they are whole again,
At home with you in heaven.

Martyn Payne

Special offer

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