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In a strange land: people with dementia and the local church

people with dementia and the local church.

ISBN: 9780 9530 4946 2

4M Publications 2004, £14.95

Malcolm Goldsmith wrote this book to affirm and to increase awareness that those with dementia are held within the love of God, and that it is part of the calling of the church to minister to these people and those who look after them with commitment and compassion.  Indeed he suggests that this is one of the great tasks set before the church today.

Goldsmith sets the scene by looking at what dementia is, what it feels like, and at the impact it has on family carers.  He goes on to consider the response of the local church and reflects on the wider meaning of this for us as Christians.

Essentially this book was written for church leaders, to support them in this very difficult area of ministry, but with the hope that it would encourage those who care for people with dementia, and those who suffer from it.

Dementia simply means “out of one’s mind”; this is the “strange land” of the title, and the link is made with Psalm 137.  The Hebrews’ feeling that they could not worship God in exile are compared to those suffering from dementia, experiencing all the dispossession and discontinuity that goes with that particular journey.  As the Hebrews found that God was still with them in this strange land, so Goldsmith affirms that the person with dementia is not lost to God either.  The hope, love, and practical care of a Christian community can demonstrate this by the way it sustains them and their families.

I did not find this an easy read, partly as the author draws on the work of so many other people; this enriches the book in some ways but also interrupts the flow of what is being said.  As a long term carer for someone with dementia I found the book quite painful to read; for us it has not been possible to sustain a meaningful link with the Christian community but clearly having this could be a great source of support.

For me the value of this book is that it could be used by a church or Christian group to look at how they care for those with dementia and their families within their church/community.  It has material in it which could be structured to use in a study day/short course, and could end, as Goldsmith suggests, with looking at how “dementia friendly” church is and what could be done.  He writes thoughtfully on the value of listening, of visiting and keeping in touch with those who find it difficult to come to church and of offering practical support to carers.  He highlights the importance of making links with nursing homes and using different forms of service, for instance to mark a person’s admission to a nursing home.  None of these things is easy to do, and if they are not done, no one is likely to complain.  However, as he says, this is not a one way process, and the life of congregations is hugely enriched by holding within them those who are not cognitively and behaviourally “normal”.  But that needs tolerance, understanding and imagination, and I would suggest needs to be embraced by groups of people in churches, not just ministers.

There is plenty to think about here; as Goldsmith says, if the church does not have good news for those with dementia, does it really have good news for anyone?


Sarah Akehurst TSSF