Meeting the Spiritual Needs of a Person Living with Dementia

Caring for a person with dementia is demanding. By the end of the day, you may be exhausted. Meeting the person’s physical and emotional needs, attending to their medical issues, and taking care of household tasks is so time consuming that it can be easy to overlook another important aspect of a person’s care: their spiritual needs.
Spirituality and religious traditions are important. They’re acquired early and are usually deeply engrained. Eventually, they become part of a person’s DNA.

What happens to a person’s spirituality as dementia progresses? Does it go away? You might be surprised to know that a person’s spiritual needs usually don’t change with a diagnosis of dementia. Cherished beliefs continue to be a part of that person’s identity. Although dementia may cause changes to behavior and personality, the person’s core identity remains.

Have you ever heard dementia patients with limited communication skills recite a prayer or sing several verses of a hymn and know all the words? Have you wondered why they can remember the words to a prayer and say them clearly, but not be able to otherwise form a sentence? It’s because dementia affects different parts of the brain in different ways.

The left side of the brain is responsible for language. This includes vocabulary, comprehension, and speech production. The right side of the brain is responsible for rhythm. This includes poetry, prayer, songs, music, and dancing. Dementia affects the left and right sides of the brain asymmetrically. In other words, the left side of the brain is damaged more extensively by dementia than the right side, which means that the words to songs and prayers tend to be preserved.

How can you help meet the spiritual needs of loved ones with dementia? Try these tips:

  • Take them to a church service.
  • Make sure they have their favorite religious symbols and objects nearby.
  • Arrange for visitors from the congregation to visit.
  • Show them the website of the church. Read them the news.
  • Pick up the weekly church bulletin for them to look at. Read it to them.
  • Reminisce using photos of important events that took place within the church.
  • Play gospel music.
  • Watch religious services shown live online or on television.
  • Recite daily prayers with them.

Researchers say that people with dementia who continue to be involved with their spiritual traditions report a higher quality of life and satisfaction than those who do not. Meeting a loved one’s spiritual needs delivers other benefits for the elder. It creates structure and routine. It provides grounding and comfort during periods of confusion or upset about life changes. It can create moments of joy and happiness. It engages the person in meaningful activities and keeps him or her socially involved with members of the church community.

Taking the time to attend to an elderly loved one’s spiritual needs also benefits the primary caregivers. If that caregiver is you, it will provide you with respite time to do something else while your loved one has a visitor, listens to music, reads from the Bible, or watches a service.

Ultimately, helping elderly loved ones meet their spiritual needs means that you will be making it possible for them to retain and fulfill a very important part of themselves. Spirituality and everything that goes with it is a gift, especially for people living with dementia.