Community Can Help Ease Personal Transitions

Community Can Help Ease Personal Transitions

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


They were childhood friends. They have been married for more than 60 years, and have never been separated in all those years. That was until a few weeks ago when her dementia advanced to the stage where she was no longer safe in their home, and required more care than her husband or family could provide.

She is now in a dementia care setting, often angry and bewildered that her husband and children “just dumped me here.” She does not comprehend why they made the decision, which was made in great agony. They were heartbroken when that seemed to be the only choice left to them. Needless to say, her husband is torn between knowing “I made the right decision,” and “maybe there is another way that I am not seeing.”

Sound familiar? It is an increasingly common situation. The small congregation I currently serve is discovering a new twist on an old adage—“It takes a village to raise a child.” As a village of caring people, who see themselves as an extended family, they are discovering it takes a congregation to care for everyone devastated by such a turn of events. How do they care for husband and wife? How do they be the church to people who have been such a part of their lives, without overstepping boundaries? How much privacy do they need? Do they visit her, and if they do, how do they respond to her anger and illogical thoughts? 

Tough questions! Ones that beg for answers. Ones that no one seems able to answer in definitive ways. Having ministered in a setting for the last 13 years where these questions constantly arose, I still do not have definitive answers. What I do have is some suggestions that often work, some do’s and do not’s.

Ministering to Caregivers

  • Err on the side of caution; don’t assume what the caregiver(s) need. Ask! “Is there something specific that we can be doing for you?” “Would it be helpful for us to bring meals for a while?” “Would someone who would shop for you be helpful?” Offer specific ways the congregation is prepared to be there for them, asking if that is what they want or need. The bottom line is, we ask permission or we risk seeming intrusive at a difficult time.
  • Be willing to listen, not necessarily offering suggestions, to the caregiver’s pain. Being heard and allowed to vent opens the door to healing acceptance. We don’t have to have answers to be helpful. We just have to be with the one hurting.
  • Be careful not to add guilt to someone already feeling guilty for not being able to care for a loved on. Avoid suggesting they need to move on. That might imply they are not responding appropriately.
Ministering to those with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s
  • Accept their confusion. Correcting them, however gently, often adds to their anger. Be empathetic, rather than sympathetic. 
  • Listen to them and then try to shift the focus to something pleasant and non-threatening, something that will likely give them pleasure. “Tell me again, where were you born?” “What do you remember doing when you were younger?”
  •  Compliment them. “You are still so pretty/handsome, you must have been a knockout.” Too simple? Borderline inane? Perhaps, but if it allows them to temporarily escape the confusion. That is a gift you can bring. 
  • Do not, even unconsciously, say or do anything that might seem like criticism. “Mom, when is the last time they washed your hair?” “You must remember I was only here yesterday.” Such comments, while seemingly innocuous, often upset the one to whom they are said.
  •  Positive statements are more likely to elicit good responses and add to the quality of the visit.
  • Enjoy the moment. Try not to give into the temptation to feel sorry for the one you are visiting.