Sensory-Based Worship Services Become New Trend in Helping Dementia Patients in Assisted Living Facilities

Assisted living facilities in Minnesota are hosting church services for residents living with dementia to help them reminisce about their religious rituals learned during childhood, since organizers say those memories usually remain.

"We are looking for ways to make religious expression something that enables and invigorates, helping those with conditions like Alzheimer's be more active participants not only in these services, but more generally in the world around them," says Alex Treitler, a facility chaplain.

The worship services began over a year ago at four locations in the Minneapolis area and are operated by Augustana Care, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that specializes in caring for people with memory problems.

Along with the help of various staff members, Treitler had to structure the services from a patient's perspective, which has proven to be effective.

"I think a very big part of it is it's very engaging," said Treitler, to the Star Tribune. "It's more like a party than a service."

Usually, each facility incorporates music and sensory activities in each of their 30 minute services. Organizers also include instruments and props that allow residents to participate rather than spectate.  

The purpose is to validate their abilities instead of focus on what they are not able to do, says Treitler. In addition, they sit to hear a short message based on Bible stories, which are usually accompanied by visuals to help them understand the context.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. While Alzheimer's is just one form of dementia, more than 5 million Americans live with the disease.

Theresa Klein, an occupational therapist at Augustana Emerald Crest Assisted Living in Minneapolis, says those who suffer from dementia tend to be receptive to ritual practices once they are in a church-like environment.

Her grandfather, she says, is a prime example. As a devout Catholic, he attended mass each Sunday and recited prayers and engaged in worship while he sang hymns, although he remained in a constant state of confusion about his surroundings most of the time outside of church services.

While it is not uncommon for people with memory loss to engage in other types of activities that they rediscover to be familiar, the church services at the assisted living facilities have helped defy the dementia stereotype.

The approach to the services is considered unconventional, however, the idea behind them is a continuous effort to keep up with a modern way of viewing patients with memory loss, which Treitler says has been an evolving practice for the last 15 years.

In addition to developing a religious program with Minneapolis facilities, Treitler is also currently working on creating similar services for Muslim and Jewish dementia residents.