Can Religion be a Comfort for People with Dementia?

Health Professional

An active religious life, say a number of researchers, results in greater satisfaction with life. Religious belief often holds a greater significance for the elderly and with 5-15% of the over 65s suffering from some form of dementia, religion should continue to be important to them.

My father, an agnostic for most of his later life, became more interested and seemed to re-engage with his Calvinistic Methodist childhood as he became frail and his cognitive decline increased. In the final hours of his life he asked for prayers to be said and he found a degree of rest from his terminal agitation because of it. This is not uncommon. A hospice priest told me that religious belief, although a great solace for some, did not preclude anxiety about death and issues about an afterlife.

Connecting with a religion of childhood is common in people with Alzheimer's. For people with dementia, past memories increasingly begin to override more recent events. Past routines, beliefs, give a feeling of familiarity and provide comfort in an uncertain place.

Should Caregivers Encourage Religious Beliefs or Ignore Them?

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence from caregivers and religious workers that religion can and does bring comfort to people with dementia. However, it is often overlooked as a way to help improve the lives of people with dementia.

An active religious life can have a positive knock-on effect for caregivers, be it family members and/or professionals, who provide the care. It is interesting that I rarely saw priests, vicars, Imams, a Rabbi or other religious leaders taking services in nursing homes, except where the care home was for people from a specific religious community. Occupation therapists used hymns and carols for music sessions that tapped into long forgotten memories, but religious services were not often offered as part of a home's activities. It seems a shame.

It has been shown that rituals and religious practices can be used to connect and improve communication, especially for people with early stage Alzheimer's.

It may help caregivers feel they can find common ground with their loved one as the progressive effects of Alzheimer's changes behavior and physical wellbeing. Feeling powerless and helpless is very hard for caregivers, so anything that helps families cope better should be encouraged and should be actively supported by health professionals.

Religious practices are being marginalized in some countries but imposing personal beliefs on others does not mean we should ignore the faith of others. When we know faith can bring comfort and peace to so many people, it is worth investing a little time and energy to establish and meet these needs.