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Faith and sacraments still help dementia patients

Prayers, hymns, sacraments.

For Catholics suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, these expressions of the faith can crack open a window in their minds to let in a glimmer of memory, recognition and awareness.

"Things like traditional prayer still mean a lot, and traditional practices are still meaningful," said Father James Tiegs, who served as chaplain for 10 years at New Cassel Retirement Center in Omaha and now is pastor of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Omaha. Faith rituals are ingrained through practice and habit, he said.

"It’s amazing that one of the last things they forget is how to receive Communion and how to pray," said Deacon Kevin Joyce, a member of Holy Name Parish in Omaha and pastoral care director at New Cassel and its Franciscan Day Centre, which provides daytime support services for elderly people who cannot be left alone, including those who suffer from dementia.

Cognitive ability may have diminished, but people with dementia can still worthily receive the Eucharist, Father Tiegs said. "When they open their mouths or hold out their hands, that’s sufficient. We know their hearts are in the right place."

"When someone takes Communion to them, there seems to be an awareness and an understanding of what they’re receiving," Deacon Joyce said. "It’s been a part of their lives for so many years and something that’s been very important to them."

Songs also can trigger recognition and memory, Father Tiegs said. "Just singing some traditional Catholic hymns can easily engage people. And gestures like you might see in a children’s liturgy also can work well."

The sacrament of reconciliation depends on the person’s level of awareness, he said.

"As a priest, you do what you can to walk them through a liturgical or prayerful process, share the Scriptures, and ask them if there’s anything they’d like to confess or ask God’s forgiveness for.

"Depending on their awareness, I’ll walk through an act of contrition with them, and I have no problem offering absolution," Father Tiegs said. "It’s a comfort to them."

But for someone in an advanced stage of dementia, they technically are not capable of sin, he said. And in the anointing of the sick, absolution is given for any unconfessed sins.

"When ministering to elderly and dementia patients, what’s most important is to put yourself in their shoes, and try to be aware of what their thought process is and try to respond to what they’re thinking," said Deacon Joyce.

"When a loved one experiences dementia, even though there’s a sense of loss, it can still be a holy time." Father Tiegs said. "We give of ourselves to them, even though they can’t give back. But we remember that they still have a life."

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