Creating Multi-Sensory Worship for People with Alzheimer’s

ANAHEIM, CA (August 26, 2010) – A Covenant minister who is developing a worship program for people with Alzheimer’s hopes churches and care facilities will begin to incorporate it into their ministries.

Nancy Gordon is the director of the California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging. Earlier this year, the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging honored her with its “2010 Best Practices Meritorious Award.” The award recognizes the most creative programs and initiatives in the areas of Alzheimer’s and dementia care presented in houses of worship, community centers, and other settings.

Gordon bases the worship experience, “Sensing the Sacred: Small Group Worship for those with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias,” on the “Young Children and Worship” material written by Sonja Stewart. She adapted the material for seniors. The program provides a multi-sensory worship experience that uses wood figures to tell biblical stories as the “sermon” part of worship.

“Adapting the material can be hard because you don’t want to patronize people with Alzheimer’s or treat them like children,” Gordon says.

She became convinced that the material could be adapted for adults after experiencing it first-hand at a workshop Stewart presented during a Central Conference retreat. Stewart provided assistance to help Gordon begin the project.

“When the group gathers to worship God, we greet one another in God’s name, sing a hymn, and prepare our hearts to listen to one of God’s stories,” says Gordon. “After the story, we wonder about it together, read Scripture, give thanks, pray, and receive God’s blessing.”

The program considers the special needs and limitations of people with Alzheimer’s, Gordon says. “People with Alzheimer’s can’t process concepts such as ‘God is love,’ but if you tell them the story about the good shepherd, they experience that.”

Scripts are used for the stories. So far, Gordon has written four scripts and patterns for figures. The first, which is on the Good Shepherd, is ready for print, and the others on Advent/Christmas, Jesus and Zacchaeus, and Easter will be ready soon.

“I originally wanted to do a different story every week, but I’ve found that you can do the same story for several weeks running and it’s new every time, although familiarity with the rhythm of the service does develop,” Gordon says.

Gordon has tested the material at several sites, mostly facilities with Alzheimer’s units.

Gordon was an associate pastor at Winnetka Covenant Church in Wilmette, Illinois, while attending seminary. After graduation, she began working in 1998 at a retirement community in charge of “growth opportunities,” which basically was taking various programs and putting them under one umbrella, she says.

She is “on a campaign” to convince churches to continue ministering to seniors with Alzheimer’s. “There’s a lot of fear, but it’s a wonderful ministry and not as scary as people think.”

Gordon emphasizes, “Even though they have lost their memory, the person is still there.”

Gordon initially received a Worship Renewal Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, with money provided by the Lilly Endowment. She is seeking grant funding to promote and distribute the material.

Anyone interested in seeing scripts, collaborating on new stories, or interested in starting programs can email Gordon. She will be leading a Midwinter Conference workshop on ministering to seniors as well as encouraging seniors to engage in ministry.

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