It is often said that the greatest loss faced by a person with Alzheimer’s, is that of their precious memories: the moments that marked their life, for good and bad. It can be just as painful, however, to lose the memory of one’s beliefs: the value systems and sense of spirituality that gave rise to important actions and choices or provided a vital source of support in the worst of times.
As caregivers, we strive to attend to our patient’s needs; these can range from nutrition to physical and mental therapy. However, it is equally important to respect our patient’s belief in God or a universal life force, since spirituality can enhance mental health and wellbeing in patients in various stages of Alzheimer’s.
What Spirituality Can Bring to a Senior’s Life
In a systematic review of religion and spirituality in patients with dementia published in International Psychogeriatrics, researchers noted that in participants relying on religion or spirituality (through faith, religious practice, or maintaining social interactions), cognitive disorders tend to reduce or stabilize.
Spiritual or religious beliefs also enable people to cope better with the disease, maintain important relationships, stay hopeful, and find meaning, thereby leading to an improved quality of life.
Spiritual and religious belief enhance mental health and help people cope with vicissitudes in various ways, by improving general wellbeing, reducing distress and depression, reducing mortality, and improving one’s ability to deal with stress.
As noted by Dalby (2006), the search for meaning and purpose tends to be particularly present in the elderly, since previous sources of purpose (such as a job) can diminish. It can also be tough to lose beloved friends and family in one’s winter years.
The Effect of Disease on Belief
According to researchers, “When a serious disease is diagnosed, it can cause serious shock in elderly adults, and can call into question not only their identity but also the spiritual process itself.” The quest for meaning can intensify, and spiritual growth can be much deeper than in one’s youth. As noted above, it can be particularly useful for patients with dementia, since regular participation in religious practice has been linked to lower cognitive and behavioral decline.
Spirituality and Early Stage Dementia
Spirituality can be a particularly important coping mechanism in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease since a loss in independence and self-esteem can give rise to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
In one 2009 review on the quality of life in patients with Alzheimer’s, around one-third of those surveyed stated that their personal spirituality helped them accept the loss and relieved their fear and anxiety, lending meaning to their sense of loss.
How Can Caregivers Help?
At all stages of Alzheimer’s, patients who express a wish to pray, listen to spiritual readings or take part in spiritual activities, should be encouraged to do so. Activities can range from group worship to simply being read a sacred passage, or listen to an audiobook of spiritual based teachings.
Some patients may find solace and peace by simply thinking of God; others may wish to attend service; still others may wish to pray, meditate, visit a religious site nearby, or even take part in church work, which fosters a sense of connection and identity.
“The Lord helps me get through this. I don’t dwell on sitting around worrying and all that kind of stuff because God has been good to me. He brought me from a long way. Definitely, my faith is the power of my life.” Thus claimed one patient with Alzheimer’s who observed how his spirituality grew more intense with the passing years, and also gained importance in his life.
As a caregiver, being respectful of a patient’s religion or spirituality involves creating an environment in which patients can express their beliefs and practice worship in ways that mean something to them. As much as possible, communal worship should be encouraged if it is sought by the patient, though ultimately your patient should light his or her own spiritual path.