Will God still be there?

Supporting faith in later life

Championing the needs of older people

At BRF we value and serve the older members of our communities – through caring, resourcing and advocating. We work hard to champion the needs of older people – particularly those who are frail and isolated – through our Anna Chaplaincy to Older People ministry and publications like Bible Reflections for Older People, as well as books on ageing by wise and compassionate writers.

When Debbie Thrower, now BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy Pioneer, first started this ministry, as part of a local initiative in Alton, Hampshire, one of the first people she talked to was Bob Weighton. Born on 29 March 1908, Bob is officially Britain’s oldest man, at 111 (at the time of writing).

Bob Weighton

'I rejoice that Anna Chaplaincy has sprung up and is flourishing. The clergy in the town thought they should do something to support older people, and they appointed Debbie. I gave her a few ideas and we’ve been friends ever since. It all stems from that, much to my astonishment and exceeding gratitude.'

'Super-centenarian' Bob Weighton

How do older people grow in their relationship with God?

As Debbie spent more and more time talking to older people in care homes and in the community, she began to see the need for new resources. Her idea for a series of specially written Bible reflections – 'by older people for older people' – began to take shape, and experienced writer and editor 'Tricia Williams was approached to develop Bible Reflections for Older People.

Originally a specialist in Bible resources for children and schools, 'Tricia's interests had changed as her own children had grown older. 'I began to be interested in contextual theology,' she says. 'How do people in different situations understand the Bible? How do they engage with scripture and grow in their relationship with God?'

Bible Reflections for Older People

What is the purpose of my life for the next 30 years?

'Tricia Williams

As 'Tricia (left) became older herself, she began to think what this might mean in terms of faith.

'I got to know people who had dementia,' she says. She realised that they were people who had been involved in leadership and in teaching and preaching, and now they had dementia. So how did that affect their relationship with God? What is the nature of faith in God when your cognitive ability is compromised by dementia? 'That triggered my interest in faith and dementia, and eventually I began to work on my doctoral thesis on that subject.'

Tricia explains her vision for the Bible Reflections for Older People series:

'The idea right from the beginning was that older people have different issues facing them, to those in mid-life, when you’re probably more focussed on family and career: what is the purpose of my life for the next 30 years? You may have health issues, or feel isolated and lonely. Your concentration may be failing or you might be just walking more gently through life. So we wanted something flexible, sensitive to the realities of ageing, not too weighty but which reflected a lifetime of faith and knowledge. Something not too structured, that you can pick up and put down, that is reassuring and reminds you that God is with you in this.'

God doesn’t give up on people – he’s still with us.

At first 'Tricia worked on Bible Reflections for Older People alongside her doctorate, sustained to meet the demands of both, she says, by 'those big questions that arise when confronted by dementia, especially in Christians who have lifetimes of service to God and their communities. What is faith in those circumstances? What does it mean to be a person made in the image of God? How does the spiritual life of someone with dementia continue, and how is that life expressed? God doesn’t give up on people – he’s still with us. Because of my theological interest – both academic and professional – I wanted to know what the Bible said about all this.'

What does faith mean for someone who is losing their cognitive capacity?

'We need to learn to think differently'

Tricia continues: 'These are important questions for friends, family and carers, and in the early stages of dementia, for the person who has the condition. Will God still be there?

'I worked with eight people with dementia, four of whom are no longer with us. These were committed Christians who had known God all their lives, and what they taught me was that they still had a very strong sense of God being with them. In fact, they said they were closer to God than ever. They weren’t afraid of dying because they were sure they were going to be with God.'

True to her evangelical roots, 'Tricia went back to study the Bible, asking, 'What, then, does the Bible say to me about having a relationship with God, and about participating with others in the life of the Christian community? Does the Bible say that my relationship with God is over if I can no longer spell out why I believe what I believe? We need to learn to think differently.

'As the body of Christ, as we serve our fellow believers, one of our roles is to consider how we can help older people, and particularly those who are frail or who are living with dementia, to know that they are part of the body.'

It’s a gift to be reminded that this person whom God made, hasn’t stopped being made in the image of God.

'Their vulnerability is a gift to the church'

'When I focus on a person with dementia,' Tricia says, 'as I sit at their feet, perhaps in silence, perhaps holding their hand, and recognise the presence of God in that person, that is very humbling.

'I think of people who, while they can no longer have a coherent conversation, might be sparked into conversation if you talk to them about something they love. They might start laughing with you and even tease you. I remember a Scottish lady I started talking to by saying, "You’ve got an interesting accent," and she looked at me mischievously and said, "No, you’ve got a funny accent!" So, moments of brightness like that are gifts.

'When you share communion with people who are into dementia, when there is that taste and that tactile sensation, we’re all at the same level – we all receive from Christ and we are all on an equal footing and the fact that I share in the worship of Jesus with somebody with dementia is somehow humbling and reminds me of our vulnerable status before God.

'As we learn to serve people with dementia, as we learn to respond to them, that in itself is a gift.'

Find out more about BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy

Donate to BRF’s work to support older people

More on spirituality in later life...

Come Let Us Age cover

Come, Let Us Age!

An invitation to grow old boldly
by Wanda Nash

Thinking of You cover

Thinking of You

A resource for the spiritual care of people with dementia
by Joanna Collicutt

The Freedom of Years cover

The Freedom of Years

Ageing in perspective
by Harriet and Donald Mowat

At the End of the Day cover

At the End of the Day

Enjoying life in the departure lounge
by David Winter

Image acknowledgements

Background photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash