Dementia and religion: ‘What if I forget about God?’

Dementia is the overall term for memory loss and cognitive impairment that results from diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It progresses as damage to the brain disrupts normal communication between brain cells and, in turn, affects behavior and thinking. Religion News Service is running a three-part series on dementia and religion. This is an excerpt from part 1. You can read the full series on the RNS website here.

LOUISVILLE, KY (RNS) — When geropsychologist Benjamin Mast evaluates dementia clients at his University of Louisville research lab, there’s a question some people of faith ask him:

“What if I forget about God?”

It’s a query that reflects the struggles of people facing diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The earliest stages of Alzheimer’s involve the buildup of protein fragments, or plaques, on some brain cells and the growth of twisted fibers, or tangles, within those cells. That process, Mast said in an interview, “damages a particular aspect of the memory system more significantly than others.”

In his book, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease, Mast describes a man who may not always remember his grown children’s names but “quickly joins in” when someone reads one of his favorite psalms.


Mast said what remains intact is the part of the memory that’s held longest. In some cases, that relates to faith: hymns and creeds that people may have recited for years.

“If you ask a person who’s been deeply affected by Alzheimer’s about something that happened yesterday, you’re going to their weakness in terms of memory,” said Mast.

“But if we can engage them, for example, in the context of faith services with older songs and hymns that they’ve known for many years, we’re meeting them where they’re strong.”

From congregations to chaplains’ offices, there are stories of kept faith and questions about whether it has been lost. Experts and everyday individuals speak of “magical” moments when people who usually stare into space are suddenly enlivened by worship and tough times when a loved one no longer avows a long-term belief.

Mast, a Southern Baptist elder, said clergy have often told him they grapple with how to help congregants whose families are coping with dementia.

“The common refrain is, ‘Seminary didn’t prepare me for this,’” said Mast.

“Projected Number of People Aged 65 or Older With

Alzheimer’s Disease, by Age Group, United States,

2010-2050” Graphic courtesy of CDC

He succeeded in having fellow Southern Baptists adopt a 2016 resolution that called for pastors to seek training about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and churches to expand their ministries to meet needs of caregivers and the people for whom they are providing care.

The growing aging population and new awareness of dementia have prompted theological schools to include more about these topics in ministry, theology and ethics courses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. Experts predict twice as many Americans 65 and older will have the disease by 2040.

Chaplains in senior citizens’ facilities have long dealt with residents with dementia and have noticed how some residents may recall their religion more than other aspects of their lives.

“Their faith is the thing, even as they move further into dementia, that they will retain,” said the Rev. Rebecca Church, director of pastoral services at Wesley Manor, a United Methodist-affiliated retirement community in Louisville. “They will remember how to say the Lord’s Prayer when they won’t remember anyone’s name. ”

Read the full story here.

The second story in the series Songs and stuffed animals instead of sermons includes an anecdote from the  “Jewish Music for the Mind and Soul” program, where Rabbi Beth Janus sings and strums songs she hopes might spark memories around the table.

One woman sang along occasionally with selections that included Hebrew songs, the spiritual “Go Down Moses” and “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof”; she sometimes accompanied Janus’ guitar with a blue egg-shaped shaker.

Read the full series on the RNS website here.


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