Church answers need for dementia support in Northern Ireland

Michelle McLane and Gina Grate Pottenger
Monday, July 4, 2016

It is estimated that 850,000 people in the United Kingdom currently live with dementia. Facing the daily reality of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing for carers. For many churches and their congregations, it can be difficult to know how to help these families.

ImageKen White (photo), pastor of the Bangor Church of the Nazarene in Northern Ireland, has learned firsthand what is needed by dementia carers. For several years, his mother, who suffered from dementia, was under his care. Unlike many, he was able to secure a day care unit for her, and even saw her main care worker come to Christ. After his mother died, White witnessed the struggles in the growing dementia community who are without the benefits of daily assistance. He wondered, “‘What can I do?’”

His mother’s former carer, Carol, began attending his church and grew in the Lord. White saw an opportunity unfolding. The two were eager to support family carers. They recruited two counselors, George and Kay Thompson, and other volunteers from the church to assist. Soon, they had founded Oasis, a group to support persons with dementia and their carers. Now, with five volunteers and the backing of their church family, their dream to help Alzheimer’s and dementia affected families is being realized.

About 20 carers and persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s attend the Tuesday Oasis meetings. At the meetings, lunch is served and the group sings familiar songs together. Crafts and quizzes help to keep minds active. Often, the leaders share historical records from the members’ hometowns to start conversations that encourage memory abilities and retention. A great deal of laughter takes place in each three-hour meeting.

The atmosphere and activity of Oasis also provides a break for carers. Oasis leaders, and all those in attendance, are familiar with the outbursts of people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. They take the unpredictable comments in stride, allowing carers to relax.

ImageIndividuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s sometimes cling to their carers or become upset if separated, even if just for a few moments. While the activities and games occur, family members are able to leave the room for a small break, if needed. They also have the opportunity to speak with the counselors, like George Thompson, who volunteer their time to Oasis’ mission and everyone who attends.

“The church is to look after the whole person,” said Thompson. “The spiritual side is equally as important as the physical, so the community-based organizations are only looking after the physical and the mental wellbeing, but there is a spiritual dimension which isn’t catered for anywhere else. The church is perfectly situated for that.”

As Oasis continues to expand, others, including recently bereaved persons, have joined their group to enjoy the fellowship and community. The leaders of the group have made it clear that all are welcome.

“[I]t’s not just about the church, but about the wider community,” said Kay, one of the volunteers. “If folks want to come, that would be brilliant, so they feel they have somewhere to go and be accepted as they are.”

ImageIrene, whose husband, Morris (both photo left), has dementia, has experienced the blessing of the church’s focus on carers and their families. Irene and Morris were lay leaders in Bangor Church of the Nazarene for many years. Then Morris began exhibiting signs of dementia, and eventually Irene could not care for him at home anymore. So he moved into a care center.

“It’s hard if you’re at home, especially if they’re getting really bad,” Irene explains. “They don’t sleep the same, and it’s hard for anybody at home to just look after them. You don’t know what way they’re going to react from day to day.” Later Irene notes, “If [the church] weren’t there, I’d be lost.”

To White, ministering to carers and their families is the natural mission of the church. He visits Morris and other church members with dementia each Friday.

“As members of our fellowship with this specific need, the church should be there for them on a weekly basis,” White points out.

While White and his congregation continue to see Oasis and many other family ministries expand, White is quick to point out that they are always looking to the Lord for guidance on what He will do next in His church.

“The biggest room in this church is the room for improvement, but hopefully, we’re going forward.”