Memory care and spirituality

People often rely on the strength of their faith when faced with life's greatest challenges. These challenges, whether they involve the loss of a loved one, illness or an unexpected tragedy, test the limits of our ability to cope.

According to Dr. Robert Heyada of Georgetown University, "a positive spiritual orientation helps people cope, and makes them resilient in the face of life's challenges. Being aware of one's beliefs, values and spiritual perspective are essential elements of self-knowledge. A spiritual director can help in this regard."

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can be a devastating experience for an individual and their loved ones. For many, this is an especially important time to rely on faith and seek spiritual support.

Alzheimer's disease affects 5 million Americans today. By 2050, the number of people living with Alzheimer's disease is expected to reach 13.8 million. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty processing information, disorientation relating to space and time, decreased language skills, and eventual loss of physical ability.

This fall, Youville Place Assisted Living Residence in Lexington will begin a renovation project to create a faith-based, nonprofit memory support community for residents with dementia. Pending approval from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, The Courtyard at Youville Place will open its doors in February of 2014 as the area's only Catholic community for people with memory impairment.

Youville currently offers traditional assisted living, but is unable to support residents with moderate and advanced dementia. According to Joanne Parsons, CEO and President of Youville Assisted Living, "We want to support our residents as they age in place, and this includes residents who develop dementia. We also want to be a resource to the community for this specialized type of assisted living service."

The Courtyard at Youville Place will focus on spiritual and emotional support, for Catholic and non-Catholic residents alike, as an essential component of community life. Catholic residents will have the option to attend Mass in the Youville Place chapel, and all residents will have access to a chaplain for spiritual guidance and support.

"Care for individuals with Alzheimer's disease is complex," says Maria Benoit, Youville's Chaplain and Director of Mission. "Although individuals may lose their memories from the past, they do still find comfort in deeply rooted rituals, such as saying the Rosary and attending Mass."

Benoit has firsthand experience supporting people with dementia. Before joining Youville Place in early 2013, she spent two years working with memory-impaired seniors at d'Youville Senior Care in Lowell. "I have worked with people who could no longer recognize their children," she says. "But they still responded to hymns and to the rituals of Mass."

Communication and dementia

Many of the greatest challenges posed by Alzheimer's disease arise from communication barriers between caregivers and the affected person. As the disease progresses, these communication barriers can become increasingly frustrating and difficult to overcome.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Paul Raia, vice president of clinical services at the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Association, developed an approach that minimizes communication barriers, reconciling the world of the caregiver with that of the person with Alzheimer's disease. Known to professionals in the field as "habilitation therapy," this approach encourages caregivers to enter the world of the person with Alzheimer's disease and embrace their reality.

"Dementia care today places individual emotional reality above all considerations," says Youville CEO Parsons. "We know that we can't cure cognitive decline. What we can do is adapt to the needs of individuals, by creating positive emotions and valuing them for who they are now. Most importantly, our caregivers will accept and embrace the reality of our residents."

One of the key principles of habilitation therapy is that emotional memory remains intact, even as cognitive memory fails. A woman with dementia may hear her favorite song and not remember it five minutes later, but the positive emotions she experienced from the song can persist throughout the day. Life for those with memory impairment can be greatly enhanced by a series of positive emotional experiences.

Religious experience, deeply rooted in the private emotional life of a resident, also remains accessible as people experience cognitive decline. "Religious rituals offer people with dementia a way to make connections that are familiar to them and have deep meaning." says Parsons. "We want to be able to provide this to our residents."

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See

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