“Good morning, Gary, I’m Rev. Cindy. It’s nice to meet you; welcome to worship.” Rev. Cindy Worthington-Berry, of UCC Boxborough, in Boxborough, MA, introduces herself to the man with the bright smile, and he responds with “Lovely to meet you!” It’s as if they are meeting for the first time, although they saw each other just a few days ago.
Gary has dementia. He is in severe cognitive decline, needs help with basic tasks, and cannot be left alone. He still has good recall of events from decades past, but has trouble even identifying family members. He definitely doesn’t remember his pastor and parishioners of the congregation he’s been a member of for several years. Rev. Cindy noticed it was distressing for him when people talked to him like they knew him, when to him they were strangers. So she just started introducing herself every week, and he responded with delight instead of distress.
Like many congregations, UCC Boxborough has a number of parishioners with dementia, and even more who are involved in caregiving for someone with dementia. As an older congregation, and the rate of dementia on the rise, this isn’t surprising. But this congregation has also had younger members diagnosed with dementia-related illnesses. And so for years they have been working on understanding dementia, supporting caregivers, and exploring best practices to welcome and embrace individuals with dementia and their caregivers.
Led by UCC Boxborough’s Called to Care Ministry Team, the church offered workshops to the congregation and community, read books, shared resources, and set up visitations. But the team wanted to do more. They explored helping the town of Boxborough become a Dementia Friendly Community, but COVID and town transitions made that a challenge. So instead, they began exploring the possibility of becoming a Dementia Friendly Faith Community.
A Dementia Friendly Faith Community (DFFC) seeks to foster spiritual connection and meaningful engagement for those living with dementia, as well as supporting their families and caregivers. A DFFC recognizes that people with dementia are spiritual beings, beloved by God, and gifts to the congregation as a whole. People with dementia benefit from being part of a faith community, and surrounded by God’s love. Through education, adaptations to the physical environment, interpersonal connection, support groups, and worship, a DFFC helps people with dementia and their caregivers continue to be part of the church as dementia worsens.
At UCC Boxborough, the Called to Care Ministry Team educated the congregation about the value and importance of becoming a Dementia Friendly Faith Community. Even in the midst of COVID, the team continued to offer workshops and worship services on dementia, including presentations by Alzheimer’s Educator, Mal Allard and author and advocate Rev. Jade Angelica with a high level of participation and appreciation from the congregation and community. With support of the church Council, the Called to Care Ministry Team proposed the congregation vote to officially become a Dementia Friendly Church.
On February 13, 2022, the congregation voted unanimously to become a Dementia Friendly Church, with this mission statement: As a Dementia Friendly Church, we at UCC Boxborough strive to make an environment that is open, welcoming and safe for those with dementia and their families and caregivers by providing support and ways to increase their spiritual fulfillment.
Since the vote, the congregation has begun holding dementia-friendly worship services once a quarter. These are shorter, simple worship services held in person during the week. All are welcome, with about 1/3 of the participants experiencing dementia symptoms. Participants gather in a circle, and the pastor builds an altar with the group, setting out a Bible and candle and flowers. Knowing the powerful impact of familiar music, the group sings the first verse of several favorite hymns. A scripture passage is shared, and the pastor offers a brief reflection. All present are invited to share what they would like lifted up in prayer, and join together in the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards, of course, there are snacks! Those present participate at different levels, but it is amazing to see people who don’t remember their children suddenly join in on Psalm 23 or Amazing Grace. (Worship resources include items from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Us Against Alzheimer's.)
The congregation has also redone interior signage to make it “dementia friendly,” including images wherever possible. And a dementia resource shelf now greets visitors in the church lobby. With more to come.
Nicolette Wellington, member of the team, observed, “Dementia has been part of life’s journey for family and church members near and dear. It has invited presence, patience, vigilance, great love and imagination. Small loving acts matter.”
The designation of Dementia Friendly Church serves as a consistent reminder of God’s call to care for our neighbor, especially our neighbors who are caregivers or living with dementia. And as is so often the case, the entire community benefits.
Note from Deborah Ringen, MSN, RN-BC Faith Community Nurse, Minister of Health and Wellness for the Southern New England Conference, UCC:
"Health and Wellness ministries are designed to promote wellbeing by addressing the needs of the congregation. We are committed to sharing the individual stories of unique ministries that have identified a concern, considered their resources and responded with intention and compassion to follow Jesus and welcome all people. UCC Boxborough's Dementia Friendly Congregation in Boxborough MA does just that!"
Rev. Cindy Worthington-Berry is Pastor of UCC Boxborough.