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Dementia: it is not about ‘us’ and ‘them’

13 June 2014


From the Revd Dr Barrie Hinksman

Sir, - I refer to your feature (16 May) on the Church's response to the increasing prevalence of dementia. Had such an article come from a supermarket chain, I would have welcomed it as a sign of enlightenment, but I was troubled that this should come from church sources.

My reservations were doubled when I showed the feature to a friend who is a trustee of a national dementia charity, and who writes, speaks, and teaches on the subject. Her original motivation arose from ten years' experience of caring for her mother throughout her dementia journey.

I think the tenor of the article shows that the Church is, as so often even in our best endeavours, missing the theological point concerning the priesthood of all believers. In the care of people with dementia, our ministry is often a well-intentioned reaching out to "them" in order to relieve their suffering. But, if we take seriously St Paul's teaching on the Body of Christ and 1 Peter 2.9 (reflecting Exodus 19.6), we then may see people with dementia as having their own distinct and vital ministry to others.

Often it is only on retreats and quiet days that we acknowledge a need to strip out the noise and bustle that deflects our focus on what matters most. There is an immediacy of contact between people when they meet in the ground of their being, where words no longer matter. We may be scared by such immediacy and intimacy, but know that the challenge is with what is most real in our lives. People with advanced dementia, including those in coma, can communicate only at this level. They have no choice but to be in the moment rather than be distracted by some past or future concerns, or to look for some distracting activity. That this present focus is, for some, unavoidable does not reduce the value of the ministry that they offer to others.

Although I write on my own behalf and out of my own experience, I also acknowledge my debt to my more expert friend. She has ceased an active participation in the Church in large part because of the way in which our ministerial structures can and do obstruct the potential part played by those Christians who are not office-bearers in the Church. Were we to take to heart this critique, I believe we would find that the kind of liturgy, the sorts of texts, even the signage and layout of our buildings would be enhancements that benefit all human beings, not just those with dementia.

Should any of your readers wish to take up the points that I make, I would count it a privilege to act as the letterbox, and to make introductions and referrals to relevant people and resources.

Address supplied
(email bljh25@iCloud.com)

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