Gerontologist Promotes Spirituality in Dementia Care

Gerontologist Promotes Spirituality in Dementia Care

Individuals who attended the Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia at Nazareth Home Jan. 24 listened to Dr. Jane Thibault. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Society needs to shift the way it perceives caring for persons with dementia and receiving that care, moving from a disaster mindset to one focused on spirituality, said Dr. Jane Thibault during a program at Nazareth Home in the Highlands Jan. 24.

“I’m proposing re-envisioning caregiving as a mutual spiritual path,” where the caregiver and the person receiving care “create meaning not just endure it,” she said.

Thibault is a behavioral gerontologist and clinical professor emerita at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Her presentation, “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia,” was part of Nazareth Home’s monthly Community Education Series and drew about 60 people on a rainy afternoon.

She began by reading a passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus tells his disciple Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

There’s “good news” in that Scripture passage, said Thibault.

No one wants to be in a situation where they can no longer care for themselves, yet “Jesus promises us that in this very condition, we can glorify God,” she said.

It’s important to view dementia from a spiritual perspective because the “loss of self that accompanies memory loss is a spiritual issue,” she said.

The person suffering from the condition as well as their caregiver, she said, often question the meaning and the value of their lives. She said there are situations where the individual with dementia and the caregiver turn to suicide as a way of ending their mutual suffering.

Individuals who attended the Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia at Nazareth Home Jan. 24 listened to Dr. Jane Thibault. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

Caregiving and receiving care can be a spiritual path if both individuals involved — she refers to them as “care partners” — are trying to:

    • Find or create meaning out of the situation.
    • Understand how the very acts of caregiving and receiving can bring one closer to God and one’s true self.

Thibault suggested that “care partners” establish some mutual spiritual practices that may include:

    • Becoming aware of the gifts both individuals have been given.
    • Attending Mass for as long as it’s comfortable following the diagnosis.
    • Asking for spiritual help from a faith community to receive prayer, home visits and Communion.
    • Taking nature walks. If the individual is not able to walk, they can be transported outdoors or to the mall in a wheelchair, the goal is to spend some time outside daily, she said.
    • Listen to and sing hymns.
    • Read and talk about favorite Scripture.
    • Pray for someone. Send someone a card saying you’re thinking of them and praying for them. This “focuses attention outward, but keeps you both in the other person’s mind. Thus, you both stay active members of the human community.” Thibault also suggested spinning a globe, randomly choosing a country, and praying for someone there.
    • Nazareth Home’s Community Education Series started a year ago to help provide answers to families of Nazareth Home patients, as well as individuals in the community, said Mary Haynes, president and CEO of Nazareth Home.

“We see ourselves as a friend of the community and we have a lot of expertise,” she said. “We know something about these topics and we’re happy to share those resources. We started last year with the topic of brain health. It’s on everybody’s mind.”

She noted that everyone will need care or become a caregiver at some point, “so it impacts everyone. … Finding those resources to take care of someone and yourself at the same time is” important.

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