Loving My Neighbour Living With Dementia

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Author: Louise Morse

When it comes to loving our neighbours there are so many situations and so many different ways it reminds me of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnet, ‘How do I love thee?’  There are ways we love individually, one to one, and collectively through our churches.  My church is on the edge of one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, and in the weeks before Christmas it was abuzz with activity.  Dozens of people came in carrying groceries and Christmas goodies, cramming them into boxes for delivery to needy households in the community.  Some we’ve come to know through our outreach team’s regular prayer walks and talks, and some are referred to us by local charities and Social Services. The hampers were all delivered by hand with friendly chats and quite a few families welcomed prayer.  It’s one of the collective ways we love our neighbours.

When Jesus said that the second most important commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself, He made it clear that your neighbour is whoever life brings alongside you (Luke 10: 25-37). The two people involved in the story told in Luke’s gospel had never met before and had only a brief relationship, yet it was life changing for the injured one and a great blessing for the other (Acts 20:35).Unlike my church’s neighbourhood outreach, it was a deeply personal interaction.

When it comes to loving a ‘neighbour’ who is coping with dementia, it’s most effective when it comes from a personal, as well as a collective approach.   An example is Irene, (81) who I chatted with during the Covid-19 lock-down.  She was the sole carer for her husband Douglas, (85).  The thing she missed most was having someone from church sit with her husband so she could catch the bus into town where she’d visit the shops and stop for a coffee.  Family caregivers can be very protective, and it was fortunate that having been part of the church fellowship for years everyone knew each other, so Douglas was comfortable with the person who came to keep him company.  That stopped with lock-down, but Ruth, the closest friend from church stayed connected by passing her house when she went for a walk, and knocking on the sitting room window.  Irene would look out and see Ruth, then go to the front door where would have a conversation standing six feet away from each other.  As well as a break from isolation, Ruth would bring encouragement and spiritual support.

Most caregivers miss the ordinary, normal, everyday routines. One wife told me that she liked to do the ironing when the carer came to help her husband.  For her, producing a pile of freshly ironed clothes was satisfying, soothing, and normal.

‘Doing normal’ is what my friend Rose and I do when her husband Peter (names changed) goes to the Dementia Day Centre.  Rose’s health has plummeted in the four years since his diagnosis, and she now has spinal stenosis and a heart pacemaker.  Once in town we go first to the Post Office where she hands in her mail order Returns, then we visit shops in the High Street, (especially those with ‘Sale’ signs) and have lunch in the Garden Centre.  All the while we talk about life, reflexively for both of us within a Christian context.  Rose used to be a teacher and I’ve shown her how not to correct Peter when he gets it wrong, but deflect him to something positive.  For instance, when he told the family that tennis star Emma Raducanu had come to visit him in Wales after her first major loss and how he had encouraged her, Rose didn’t point out that Emma hadn’t visited but told Peter that he had always been an encourager and what a blessing that was!  We’ve had many talks about residential care, something that Rose wants to avoid.  She says that every morning she asks the Lord if He would bring them Home together, and thanks Him for the strength He gives her.  The harder life becomes the closer Heaven comes to Rose.

Sadly, although Peter is a retired pastor and church elder, they seem to have dropped off their church radar and only have an occasional visit from a member.  But God hasn’t forgotten them: their neighbours in their upmarket apartments help in dozens of ways.  The mail is dropped at their door on the second floor; Rose has telephone numbers to call should they need help, and during this year’s scorching summer they were given so many bottles of water that Rose had to stack them on their shady balcony.  Without knowing the Scripture, the neighbours are fulfilling it.

When it comes to loving your ‘neighbour’ with dementia, the greatest helps are listening, assuring her (or him) that they are doing a great job of caring, being pro-active with offers of help (‘I’m going into town do you need anything?’) sitting with the person with dementia if possible to give the caregiver a break, providing a touch of normality, making sure she has your telephone number, and above all, bringing Eternity into the conversation.  Christians with dementia can ‘come alive’ with spiritual support.  Peter beams when they sing the old hymns in, ‘Worshipping with Dementia’.

Church support makes so much difference.  Collaborating with others I’ve written a booklet called, ‘Dementia Inclusive Church,’ that describes what fellowships can do to become a little more than ‘friendly.’  It’s available here.

You’ll also find further helpful Dementia resources in the Faith in Later Life Resource Hub.

Louise Morse is a friend to Faith in Later Life, and an experienced cognitive behavioural therapist with expertise on issues facing older people, including dementia. To find out more about ‘deflecting not correcting’ please see our short interview with Louise here.