Ministry amongst those with memory loss

Ministry amongst those with memory loss, often through the onset of dementia, can be very challenging—but it is a growing aspect of life as people live longer. In the latest Grove Mission and Evangelism booklet, Steven Morris tells the remarkable story of the development of a Memory Café at his church in North Wembley.

The memory café at St Cuthbert’s North Wembley attracts people from across our community. It has become a place of joy and friendships that has created a sense of community and belonging. It has been featured on radio and in case studies and articles, including in Christian Today. Memory café has been an unthreatening place of mission and evangelism and has led to an increase in our Sunday numbers too. We have found older people to be a fertile mission field, a source of joy and a blessing to this church.

What we have set up is not a niche event for a single group—just for those with Alzheimer’s or the onset of dementia. Instead it is a strategy that has been about wide and deep community-building (just the kind of thing we as church are uniquely well placed to do). The majority came because they were lonely and wanted to be part of a loving, inclusive community. They stay because they are loved and because they are now part of something bigger than themselves.

We did not set it up with anything in mind other than wanting to be a blessing to our community. We also had a deep sense that our community was hurting and we wanted to do something about it. That hurt was loneliness and isolation and our hunch is that this is a hurt that is growing in many places around our country. We have people who tell us that their contact with our memory café is the only social interaction they have each week.

The atomized life seems to be part and parcel of being a modern person. At the time of Jesus the kind of sheer and utter isolation of our elders would have been hard to countenance. He ministered in a close community, where people knew each other, and about each other and hospitality and care for elders and others was a sacred duty.

The simplicity and love of our café have taught us many things about how to be church and how to minister creatively to elders. It has revitalized our church and has changed the way I think about ministry. The more I think about it, the more I see the deep roots such ministry has in the life of Jesus and in how we do church in the here and now.

What has fascinated us is the way memory café does not just add numbers to church on Sunday, although it does that, but the way it creates a new community—and in our case a multi-faith, intergenerational one. And that is an exciting, unexpected by-product of this kind of initiative. Memory cafés are highly attractional and the games element seems to draw men in. By calling it a memory café, rather than a dementia café, you remove stigma and broaden the appeal.

It is our heartfelt desire that memory cafés spring up around the country. We want this because we see people coming to us disheartened, lonely and hopeless and we see them becoming part of something that brings faith, hope and love.

We see memory cafés as a frontline evangelistic activity, although we let the gospel speak through action as much as words. We see it as a way of re-engi- neering church and a part of church growth. It is also enormous fun, a source of joy and something that will make people smile.

In addition, they are very easy to set up. All you need are a few regular volunteers, a kettle and some tea and coffee and biscuits and some memory games. A memory café will add life to existing groups. By adding a memory focus you can revitalize an existing group for older people. They bring in people who generally do not often come to church and they generate a great deal of loyalty. Elders are simply amazed that the church cares for them and is prepared to do something for them. This is, of course, a sad comment on the way the church has, and often has not, valued the wisdom and presence of older people.

The Christian Bible has much to say about memory and its value. It is a main theme in this holy book. Memory maketh the man (or woman), or at least memory defines a holy people.

Remembering who God is and what he has done is a key part of the Bible narrative. The Old Testament is full of the big story so precious to the Israelites—their release from slavery at the hands of the pharaoh. The story is lovingly told and then remembered for centuries. Rituals and festivals grow up around it. It is part of the precious collective memory that de nes a people, that gives them identity and hope. The people are exhorted not to forget God, his person and his mighty works. But there is a strange problem, seen through the lens of what happens in this long period of corporate remembrance.

Despite the starring appearance of God, the Ten Commandments, the heroic rescue and all the rest, the people still find it hard to link memory with holiness and fidelity to the God who is there. Memory is not enough to remake the world. The people of Israel at times forget who they are, and whose they are. What people remember is not always enough to in uence the way they are in the here and now.

It is a relief to know that God can live with our faulty memories. Even his chosen people sometimes forgot to remember. And when they did forget, they found it harder to make links to the here and now. Our faulty memories are not a barrier to being loved by God. In some sense he holds the memories of communities. He remembers even when we do not.

Dementia is humiliating and public and agony upon agony. It looks like there is nothing good to come from it. It is public and it looks as though it cannot be redeemed. But that is not the full story. The love I have seen of partners and carers for their loved ones is so powerful and strong that I begin to believe that the power of evil and hell cannot prevail.

In memory café we proclaim God’s love for all people and that dementia is not the end of a person. Memory café is not just a social group at church, or a bit of manufactured jollity. It is us, the people of God, standing with those who suffer. We do this in the name of the broken God who suffered beyond suffering.

God became weak and imperfect as he was tortured and crucified. He chose it, and in choosing it he proclaims perhaps that we need to think again about our attitudes to strength and weakness. We need to challenge the myth of perfection that we cling to. Paradoxically, it is in weakness we are made strong. So how do we view those who come to us in a state of profound disablement?

Memory is powerful and so are the stories that we tell each other, and which our community cherishes. That is why we set up memory café. And that is why we record the life story of every precious person who comes. We do it because that thief on the cross called to Jesus, ‘Remember me.’ And our Lord reassured him, ‘You are coming to paradise this very day.’ Hallelujah, I say!

We declare in our faith that every person, every animal, on God’s earth has significance.

Steven’s booklet explores all the practical issues about how to set up a Memory Café, what the aims should be, how to involve volunteers, and suggestions for memory activities for different levels of engagement. It think it is going to be an important resource for an really vital area of ministry for the local church.

You can order the booklet Memory Café: How to Engage with Memory Loss and Build Community from the Grove website for £3.95, post free in the UK or as a PDF e-booklet.

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6 thoughts on “Ministry amongst those with memory loss”

  1. Having earlier this year lost my wife to Lewy Body Dementi, after more than half a century together, I want to support what has been said here. However, I would make two appeals. Firstly, for awareness that dementia is much more than memory loss; depending on the type of dementia there may be ddelusions of many kinds, hallucinations, personality change, and more. People working in this field need to understand more than just the most common form, Alzheimer’s disease.

    Secondly, dementia often kills the carer first. Be aware of the intense psychological as well as physical strains on someone still loving and caring for a person whono longer knows them and may even see them as a jailor. God bless those who take this work seriously.

    • David, thank you for sharing your moving testimony.

      The booklet is focussed on the benefits for many of memory café, rather than the details of dementia. But the Jennifer Bute, on the website that Eddie mentions below, talks about hallucinations in the introductory video.

    • Eddie, many thanks for this. The booklet actually mentions her!

      Dr Jennifer Bute is an ex-GP going through the dementia journey. On her website she points out that there is a tendency when someone has dementia to mourn the person they were. That is natural. But how can we celebrate all that they are with dementia? She points out that it is not just about what she or anyone else with dementia used to be. Even without dementia we all used to be something and someone else.

      But there isn’t a link to her website that I can see, so thanks for including it…

  2. Really important discussion to be had and ministry to be developed. I have seen how those suffering dementia still recall old songs and old liturgy and recite it perfectly. A colleague who ministers to dementia tells me they always sing the old chorus “yes Jesus loves me the bible tells me so” and folk who don’t know who they are onowthe song and peace comes after singjng. A strong case to be made for liturgy and not changing songs every month!


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