Worship with Dementia
People with dementia and age-related disabilities are coming together in an award-winning worship activity in Shrewsbury. Stephen Tomkins reports
At Messy Vintage, it is not always clear who is helping out and who has come to take part in the activities. One woman who takes part also brings other people with her as her contribution. One man prefers to serve tea than do an activity. ‘And that’s his activity,’ says the minister, Carole Marsden. ‘People are eager to help. A lot of older folks still want to have purpose.’
Messy Vintage, which takes place at Shrewsbury United Reformed Church, offers monthly worship and fellowship in a form that is accessible and engaging to people in later life, who may have dementia or sensory deprivation. Begun by church member Ann Davies, in July 2019, each service has a topical theme, such as summertime, and a biblical theme, such as parables. At different tables, participants engage in themed craft activities, wordsearches, puzzles, colouring and painting. One table offers resources for reminiscences, such as postcards going back to the 1950s and 1960s, which prompt reflection.
Each session culminates in a period of more traditional worship, with hymns, prayer and readings. A wide range of people participate thanks to the hearing loop, large-print sheets, or just because the words or music chime with their memory. ‘There’s one man,’ Carole says, ‘who hadn’t been to church for some time, but had once been in a church choir for years, and as soon as we started a traditional hymn, he went straight into the tenor line. The worship is not grounded in radical new thinking, it’s about comfort and that familiarity that may have echoes of the past.’
About 30 participants come to each session, with ten helpers, though, as Ann says, some of the helpers could have been participants. ‘It’s a team effort,’ she says.
One participant, called Margaret, who lives in residential care, told the organisers, with tears in her eyes: ‘This has been the best afternoon I’ve had.’ Others have returned bringing friends, saying that they looked forward to the service throughout the month.
One woman came as carer with her husband, who had dementia, and she sat chatting while he played board games with others. The husband has died during the pandemic, but now she comes for her own sake, and has done a planting.
Six months after they started, lockdown stopped meetings, so Ann rethought Messy Vintage as ‘something that you could put through a letterbox’. She explains: ‘If you’re sitting on your own for long periods of time, to receive something nicer than a bill or advertisement can be quite uplifting, especially through those early days of the pandemic.’
Carole provides a sheet for worship and reflection. Ann provides booklets to stimulate reminiscences – July’s asked them to remember the really hot summer of 1976. She also includes themed wordsearches and crosswords, and something to engage the senses – corn dollies, fair trade chocolate, a crochet poppy. Easter’s pack included a cross to hold and a pebble with a painting of a sunrise.
‘Some people can’t always understand the written word,’ says Ann. ‘So we include a lot of pictures, something tangible, maybe a pack of biscuits, just to tell them they’re being thought of.
‘Our group is diverse in its ability. Some are lonely but still very able; some are living with dementia, and perhaps, during the pandemic, their symptoms have deteriorated. We’ve got people with other sensory impairments. So, not everything in the pack will suit everybody but we hope something that will make a difference to someone.’
Many churches are exploring hybrid worship, because reopening for in-person services does not help everyone, and Messy Vintage is no exception. ‘Lots of people will want to come back for fellowship,’ says Carole, ‘which will be great. But some people are now beyond that, and we need to work out how we continue supporting them. How can we create something that works for those who can’t come and welcome those who can?’
In July, Messy Vintage won one of the United Reformed Church 2021 Community Project Awards, which comes with a prize of £2,000. Ann and Carole plan to invest in high quality resources to send or lend to participants, ‘a kind of lending library of memory boxes’.
‘This project is entirely replicable in lots of places,’ says Carole. ‘Instead of doing old people’s work because we feel we ought to, and it’s a drain on our time, this is a total blessing to participants and helpers alike. We want to encourage people not to see work with older folks as a burden or something we ought to do, but something we delight in.’
Messy Vintage in Shrewsbury was awarded a prize of £2,000 in the United Reformed Church Community Project Awards 2021 – an initiative sponsored by Congregational Insurance. See coming issues of Reform for reports on other winners. A video about each project can be watched at www.youtube.com/URCUK
This article was published in the September 2021 edition of Reform