WHITMAN — It’s a paradox of sorts that — while most of us may know someone living with a form of dementia — it’s a condition that can be isolating and lonely for them and their loved ones.
The Rev. Colette Bachand-Wood, priest of Whitman’s All Saints Episcopal Church knows of that isolation as both the daughter of a dementia patient and a member of the clergy ministering to patients in nursing and hospice facilities.
“I really began to be interested in how we as spiritual communities respond to, and help care for, people who have members of their families experiencing Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Bachand-Wood said. She also wrote a book, “Do This, Remembering Me: The Spiritual Care of those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia,” [Morehouse Publishing, 2016, 111 pages, $14], which began a conversation in her church as to how those services can be offered.
Certified in several types of training to work with dementia patients and their families, Bachand-Wood has trained a six-member team of her church members in dementia awareness and has begun a dementia-friendly ecumenical worship service at All Saints from 10 a.m. to noon on the third Thursday of the month. The church, known as “the little brown church at the park,” is located at 44 Park Ave., in Whitman.
“What I find is that people become so isolated when they have this disease,” she said. “If you’re a couple who’s been married 55 years and you used to love going to church where everybody knew you. Your faith is really important to you, but now the wife has Alzheimer’s and it’s just too hard to get out of the house … what if I get to church and she starts acting up?”
It can also lead to isolation and tremendous stress for care-givers as well.
Bachand-Wood linked up with Dementia-Friendly Massachusetts, taking their training program, as well.
“I put all my experiences together and now have created a workshop for churches of any denomination for creating dementia-friendly congregations,” she said. All Saints is, as far as Bachand-Wood is aware, the first church on the South Shore, if not in the state, to achieve designation as a dementia-friendly congregation.
Her team at All Saints has taken three sessions over four months in which they learned what dementia is — as well as its forms, such as Alzheimer’s — as well as how to interact positively with dementia patients and the “dementia experience.” The latter involved creating experiences similar to the physical manifestations of dementia: bags of popcorn in shoes to mimic nerve pain, earplugs and semi-obscured sunglasses for hearing and vision loss and tying fingers together to hint of the frustration of arthritis and other loss of dexterity. Then they were asked to perform daily tasks with annoying noises played in the background.
“I had no idea until I did that how isolating and frustrating it can be,” Bachand-Wood said.
One of Bachand-Wood’s care team members, who also do community outreach at nursing homes, is Regina Gurney, who was partly inspired by Bachand-Wood’s book. Gurney also led a special needs Girl Scout troop when she was younger.
“It was just something I wanted to do,” Gurney said of joining the care team. “I like helping people and these are people that, while they have some people who care for them, not enough people know about dementia to relate to them.”
The team is trained to aid spouses if a problem crops up, to reassure them there is no need for embarrassment or worry. A professional home health aid from North River Home Care will also be on staff during services.
“There are people out there in our community that have stopped going to church because it’s too much work, they’re afraid they’re going to be embarrassed,” Bachand-Wood said. “To sit and pray would be so helpful for them — to be reconnected to their faith, so they don’t feel so alone and isolated — that’s really who I’m hoping to reach.”
The service can also be used as a drop-off for spouses to give them a respite. Services are followed by an engaging activity and a snack.
The dementia-friendly service depends on tactile and colorful devices as well as music to communicate with patients who often have lost verbal skills.
“We use things that are very familiar to people,” Bachand-Wood said. The Lord’s Prayer and hymns such as “Amazing Grace” often make a connection as do the tools and icons associated with communion.
In her book, Bachand-Wood writes of a woman whose verbal communication was limited to repeated phrases, but when Bachand-Wood began to set up an altar for a bedside communion, the woman held up the chalise and clearly said: “Remember me.”
“It was such a really great lesson,” Bachand-Wood said. “People with dementia are still inside … they’re in there. How can we help them reconnect with faith?”
Crosses, candles and color — key for dementia patients with failing vision — help restore that connection.
Music helps with that because research shows what dementia patients do remember are “emotional memories” of feelings experienced during the turning points of life. Music, too, is often part of those experiences.