In Richmond Hill, dementia-tailored worship ‘stirs the soul’

Ron Wilson, right, leads a dementia-friendly service in the chapel of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Richmond Hill, Ont. Photo: Contributed
Published June 26, 2018

A small Toronto-area not-for-profit is partnering with an Anglican church to provide worship services tailored to people suffering from dementia.

Since December 2017, Memory Lane Home Living, an initiative formed to provide a home for a small number of women with dementia to live together, has been offering dementia-friendly services together with St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Richmond Hill, Ont.

Every Friday afternoon, about a dozen people—dementia-sufferers and their caregivers—gather at the church for a hot lunch, followed by an hour or less of hymns and other music, prayers, short conversations and Bible stories. Most of the services are led by Tom McCormick, a non-denominational chaplain at a local long-term care home; the Rev. Matt McMillan, parish priest at St. Mary’s, often assists and sometimes leads; and Ron Wilson, an occasional lay minister at a Presbyterian church, handles the music.

Conventional church services can be challenging to people with dementia, says Mona Lancaster, founder and director of Memory Lane Home Living. But the services at St. Mary’s offer a simple format, with their easily recognizable hymns and short talks—“levels of activity that come in five-minute clusters,” as McMillan puts it.

Lancaster got the idea while visiting her own mother, who was suffering from dementia while she lived in a long-term care home. A session of hymn-singing offered by the home to the residents seemed to bring about a noticeable change in their demeanour.

“That’s when I noticed everybody coming alive,” she says.

Lancaster was struck by the scarcity of community spiritual activities tailored to dementia-sufferers who are living at home. Last September, she approached McCormick and Wilson, who were already well-known locally for their ministry with the elderly, about giving dementia-friendly services in a church. They liked the idea, and soon thereafter Lancaster proposed the idea to St. Mary’s.

McMillan says the church liked her idea of a service tailored for dementia-sufferers in the community. St. Mary’s was also able to offer the lunch before the service as part of an existing outreach program that it runs with a local service agency: every Friday, people with mental illnesses learn to cook at the church and provide a free community meal.

People with dementia remain emotional beings, Lancaster says, despite the decline they’re experiencing in some areas of cognition, and they are often very responsive to music. Sometimes she’ll see a participant in the service seems to want to leave, and then suddenly become engaged when the singing starts.

“The mother will say to her daughter, as soon as she gets in the chapel, ‘When are we going?’ and then the music starts, and she stops completely and she listens to the music—she doesn’t say another word, or else she’ll sing the songs with us,” Lancaster says. “You can see there is some therapy to it all.”

Tom McCormick, left, and Ron Wilson, right, lead the congregation in singing hymns at a dementia-friendly service at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Richmond Hill, Ont. Photo: Contributed

The religious content of the services, Lancaster says, addresses a need of dementia-sufferers that she believes our health care system largely ignores. Recently, she says, gerontologists have begun to recognize the value of integrating spiritual practice into care for people with dementia in an approach called procedural and emotional religious activity therapy (PERAT). Studies on PERAT, she says, have shown that religious activities like singing hymns and reciting prayers can reduce behavioural problems in people with dementia, and increase their quality of life by encouraging them to be more mentally active and focused—reducing, for example, the tendency they sometimes show to aimlessly wander.

Moreover, Lancaster says, spiritual care—care that encourages people to explore subjects like the meaning of life, purpose and the transcendent—is vital to helping dementia-sufferers, as well as their caregivers and loved ones, process the suffering dealt by dementia.

“These people are going through a loss—in some ways, the onset of this disease is a palliative moment for them,” she says. “They know that life is finite and…there’s no supports out there” that address their spirituality.

The social element, she says, also meets a spiritual need—both for dementia-sufferers and the caregivers who come with them—because love and caring are closely bound up with spirituality and purpose.

“The idea of meeting in these little groups is to really try and create connection,” she says. “God didn’t mean for us to live alone. He would have stopped at Adam if he thought that was good enough.”

The services often draw on prayers, hymns and memories that participants would have encountered from their early life, since these older memories often persist longest in people with dementia.

It’s remarkable, McMillan says, how—even though some participants may not to communicate it in words—the services affect them.

“Memories connected to the earliest points in their spiritual journey, when touched, when scratched, when explored, bring back feelings of joy, of life, of love, of things that put a little bounce in their step,” he says. “They’re tapping their toes when they’re in their wheelchair, or they sort of smile and sparkle at the end of the time together…It just sort of stirs the soul.”

Lancaster says she’s hoping to offer more services for people with dementia in the future, including another program involving music, exercise and conversation. This program, although non-religious, will also be offered in September at another Richmond Hill Anglican church, St. John the Baptist Community Church (Light on the Hill).


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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