By Joe LaGuardia
In a recent joint effort by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and RTI International, researchers Erin Long, Sari Shuman, et. al. explored five inter-faith communities that provide care for loved ones suffering with dementia and their caregivers.
Their research, entitled “Faith-Related Programs in Dementia Care, Support, and Education,” summarizes best practices in religious support for families and caregivers and tips on how to build strong, sustainable communities of care.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the research highlights four trends that make for successful communities of care.
1. Faith adds to well-being. Faith-based communities provide benefits for dementia care and caregivers. As our research here at A Tapestry of Love affirms, faith-based communities provide countless benefits to caregivers and their loved ones. As Long and Shuman, et. al., note, “Studies have shown that spirituality and religious activity may provide relief from anxiety, reduced behavioral disturbances, and improved quality of life for people with dementia” (Long and Shuman, 3).
Yet, they also affirm that religious activity wanes over time because of the declining health of loved ones. We too, found that to be a problem: The longer a caregiver and her loved one stay home, the fewer cards, visits, and invitations to activities take place over time.
Faith-based communities of care, however, can close the gap for caregivers and their families who need solace, support, and ongoing professionalized care. Communities can provide, for instance, intentional programs that increase health and wellness, support groups, educational workshops, and spiritual practices that promote faith and discipleship.
Caregivers provide hours of care to loved ones; houses of worship must be intentional to either meet their needs or work with others to help provide support and resources along the journey of faith.
2. Collaboration promotes sustainable support. Faith-based communities that collaborate are sustainable and successful in prolonging and providing support. Those providing support for caregivers and their families–and churches that seek to do the same–cannot go it alone. Of all five communities in Long and Shuman’s research, each one collaborated with other churches, non-profits, and government agencies for volunteer training, grant and fundraising awareness, space usage, resource allocation, and diversified support.
When it comes to caring for families, churches need to reach out to one another and even other faith groups for support. In some instances, one church provided space for a program, while other churches in the area provided volunteers. Local associations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, provided educational resources to train volunteers, and caregivers.
Collaboration also promotes a wider participation from the community, including promotion of events and workshops, as well as little things that make a difference, such as providing transportation for loved ones and their families to get to support groups and the community. In one instance, a local taxi service provided subsidized transportation to and from the community center.
As resources are few and quality volunteers limited, it is in the best interest that faith-based communities seek collaborative models for caring for all God’s children in their local area.
3. Space assures sacred and safe interactions. Another successful aspect of dementia and caregiver care was the devotion to a specific space for support and programming. Some of the institutions that were a part of the study had stand-alone spaces, while others found sites that provided space.
Whether it is stand-alone or a partnership, having a safe and devoted space for care and support assures safety and sacred interactions. This is especially important with people with dementia: Routine and predictability promote well-being, and having a space that is familiar allows for people to feel comfortable and welcomed.
Having a devoted space also allows for ongoing education and volunteer training. Volunteers work within the confines of a manageable area, know all of the resources that are at hand, and value having a meeting place where they can interact with people who need room to grow, be, and live out their calling as caregivers or care receivers.
Stand-alone facilities, though difficult to come by, are optimal for this type of ministry. The researchers noted that one community, the Amazing Place in Houston, Texas, boasts a 13,700-square foot building that includes a chapel, art studio, game room, kitchen, conference and training rooms, sitting areas, and a courtyard. This was made possible by a dream from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston and the church’s willingness to work with non-profits and other faith groups in the area to secure the space, funding, and the 250 volunteers needed to run the full-time effort.
4. Faith, Collaboration, and Sacred Space enhance creative engagement. Creative engagement with loved ones emerge when we put faith to work, collaborate with others, and devote a sacred space to care and support others. Although many communities provide basic services–fellowship meals, chapel services, and support groups–these trends lend themselves to other creative ventures:
- A writer’s workshop can help dementia patients find creative avenues to tell their story and leave a written legacy for loved ones.
- A movie or film night with caregivers can promote new ways of seeing their role as caregivers and can encourage intentional conversations about the promises or perils of the caregiving life.
- Caregiver workshops can provide much-needed resources for self-care, grief support, or caregiver empowerment.
- Webinars can expand the promotional base of a ministry, as well as provide ongoing education to the community at large.
As communities continue to experience ministry to those suffering from dementia and the caregivers who help serve that most vulnerable population, it will be increasingly important for faith-based support services to reach out in ever creative ways. Research shows that support services make a difference. Faith, collaboration, sacred space, and creative engagement only bolster the type of resources that make for a great, well-rounded community of care.