This and the previous entry propose the likelihood that most congregations offer their members—perhaps especially older members—benefits that might help deter or delay the effects of Alzheimer’s dementia. Today several other possible factors that may match your congregation’s capabilities.
No older adult benefits from being unknown. Research across a variety of studies has found a strong, consistent correlation between socialization and the effects of Alzheimer’s dementia. Individuals with few social contacts—relatives, friends, colleagues—are at higher risk for the cognitive and emotional effects of a lonely existence. Those who are strongly engaged with others seem more likely to delay or lessen Alzheimer’s dementia symptoms.
Congregations can play a key role in enveloping people within a fellowship that’s comprised of many friendships. Most congregations work diligently to stay aware of the wellbeing of their members—especially those who might be homebound. Some churches have begun to offer programming specifically to elderly members—activities whose primary benefit may be socialization. Congregational life can provide a level of intimacy among members that is not easily achieved in other settings. Because spiritual matters lie at the core of their being, interactions among believers enable them to care for each other in deeply satisfying ways.
The Rush study looks at a variety of other daily life factors such as diet, sleep, exercise and decision-making. Although the correlations of these factors with Alzheimer’s dementia are complex, tentative conclusions have led researchers toward recommendations about lifestyle. (A good example: The amount and quality of sleep.)
In their proclamations, requirements and invitations, churches enable lifestyles that might be brain-healthy. Virtues are promoted—research suggests a significant positive correlation with happiness. Wisdom is engrained into sermons. Congregational programs and emphases deal realistically and hopefully with practical lifestyle matters. Creativity is fostered. Equality prospers inside of diversity.
It makes good sense for any congregation to evaluate how its structures, goals, identity and requirements contribute to (or detract from) the mental wellbeing of elderly members. This may also be true for pastors and lay leaders.
A life of faith
Lest you think I am confining my observations to matters presently under investigation by neurologists, let me add a personal note: In both its large forms and its minute details, a life lived according to God’s purposes can be filled with brain-enhancing blessings that might also delay or diminish the severity of Alzheimer’s dementia. Think about the positive outcomes of confession and forgiveness, love, purpose, generosity, hope or courage on the brains of church members. Brain-destroying fear and anger are countered by grace, love and acceptance. Consider the possibility that being Other- and other-directed extends our cognitive reserves into valuable arenas of thought and feeling that are as-of-yet hard to measure. Imagine how various styles of worship positively engage vast mental landscapes. Those who are part of a fellowship of believers are wrapped in the love and concern of scores of others.
My observations in these entries do not suggest yet another congregational emphasis or program. Research is still being compiled and analyzed before strong recommendations emerge, including possible applications that directly connect with congregational life. In the meantime, I’m ready to think of congregations as wonderfully positioned to contribute to the wellbeing of God’s people, including those facing Alzheimer’s dementia.
Perhaps your congregation is one of them?