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Bible Study for Seniors with Dementia

Bible Study for Seniors with Dementia

Maybe it’s ironic—or maybe it’s fitting—but it’s kind of amazing how many memorable things can happen in a memory care community, where residents are experiencing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Dan Hass can testify to that. Dan, who served as executive director of Overlook Green Senior Living, a Five Star assisted living and memory care community in Pittsburgh, PA, saw it happen time and time again in a weekly Bible study group he ran for Overlook Green residents.

There was the one night he handed his Bible to a resident, an elderly gentleman. The man, who happened to be a former pastor, had advanced dementia, a condition that had left him unable to speak coherently. Prior to that night, no one had heard this kindly resident utter a single sentence.

The man opened the Good Book—and began to read. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he began, reciting the famous first passage of Psalm 23. “I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” The man continued, finishing with, “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Then a second memorable thing occurred. The man closed the Bible, looked up and began to preach in his preacher’s voice. He spoke of the Old Testament and the New, righteousness and holiness, the strength of faith and the need for humility and to remember that, as the 23rd psalm teaches, we never have to feel alone if we believe.

“As soon as he opened the Bible, he became a pastor again,” recalls Dan, marveling at the memory. “We don’t know exactly what dementia does to the brain, but something about studying the Bible seems to light a spark. It’s always amazing to see how someone’s faith can be recalled even in the midst of memory loss. All of those moments are unforgettable to me.”

Helping Residents Connect Through Faith

Dan began the Bible study group about five years ago as a way to connect with residents outside of his usual role running the community—and as a way to practice his faith. “I came to know the Lord about 12 years ago,” says Dan, who grew up Catholic. “That Five Star supported my starting the group says a lot about the company and its commitment to finding ways to help residents feel connected and letting team members ply their own creativity.”

As many as 10 residents have met every week for most of the past five years. The group Dan started is an example of how Five Star team members go beyond their professional roles to get to know residents personally, the better to meet their needs. In Dan’s experience, Bible study seems especially well suited to connecting with people who have dementia. “They’ve gone from a lifetime of activity to limited activity because of their dementia,” he says. “But God can still reach them.”

He recalls another resident, a woman who rarely communicated but who suddenly announced one night to the group, “I pray every night for all our residents and Five Star team members.” Another woman, whose dementia was advanced, could recite Psalm 23 word for word from memory, Dan says. He notes that another woman, who was nonverbal and seldom ventured outside her apartment, would come to Bible study accompanied by her son. Dan points to that as an example of an extra benefit of the group: that of connecting with families. “It means a lot to families when they see that this gives their loved ones such a lift,” he says.

“This is just what I needed”

Despite any limitations resulting from their dementia, the memory care residents who attend the Bible study group are not shy about expressing what their participation means to them. “A typical comment I hear is, “This is just what I needed tonight!” Dan says. He can understand how his group members feel, he adds. “There are some nights where I’ve had a long day and I think, ‘Where will I find the energy to lead the group tonight?’” But he has always found the residents inspiring and his fatigue falling away. “It energizes me,” Dan says. “It is so rewarding.”

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