How chaplains and the Mothers’ Union support dementia patients in hospital

Regular visits to hospital can be stressful times for people living with dementia. The Revd Peter Wells, Lead Chaplain at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, describes the ‘ministry of presence’ chaplains and volunteers offer.

 A phone call from a relative: “Could you please visit Mum, she’s in the dementia unit. I don’t suppose she will know you’ve called.  She used to go to church and we think it might help her if you visit.  Nothing seems to help her but you never know. Many thanks”.

A conversation with one of our volunteers: “Why do we bother to visit people on the dementia unit?  what is the point if they don’t respond, don’t remember and don’t seem to take much notice”?

A chat with the ward staff: “Mrs Smith does not recognise her family any longer. She stares into space.  She smiles but nothing else.  It all seems such a shame and so disappointing for the family”.

The visit to Mum, Mrs Smith: “Hello Mrs Smith, I’m from the chaplaincy team. Your daughter asked if we would visit. Apparently you used to go to church. ( no response except for a brief smile. )  I thought I would read the Psalm 23 and read the words of a couple of favourite hymns.   I hope this is OK with you’?  The Psalm and hymns are read.  The response, little more than a smile.  We sit in silence for a while. “Mrs Smith I am going to go now.  Please be assured that you will be in my prayers.  One of us will pop in over the next couple of days.  We will keep on visiting as long as you are with us”.

The response is not so important.  What is more important is the recognition that here is a meeting of two people made in God’s image.  None of us is the perfect image of God.  We meet each other knowing that no one is perfect.  We meet each other on this journey called life.  Whatever happens to us, people deserve to be met.  Everyone has a life to be honoured.  Everyone has a life to be acknowledged.

The chaplaincy is a ‘Ministry of Presence’.  Being present with anyone and everyone.  Acknowledging our shared humanity, and shared createdness, our shared journey.  A presence that is as much for the patient and relatives as it is for the staff.

Mothers’ Union groups help us with the recognition that people with dementia still need to be valued, and when it is hard for the family and friends, we offer our support.  One MU group makes the most wonderful and inventive ‘fiddle-muffs‘ so that patients can feel, stroke, pull, hold, cuddle a muff made out of different wools and materials.  Once given the muff belongs to that patient and to that patient only.  The muffs can give a sense of comfort, control, value in a world which appears to have lost its meaning.  Men or women can use the muffs but the muffs seem to be more popular with the women so ‘switchboards‘ have been made for the men with switches, buttons to pull and press.  Relatives and staff are so impressed that people have taken the time to make the muffs and boards.  Someone has bothered to think of the needs of others.

Another MU group bakes a cake once a week that is kept for a weekly tea party on the dementia unit.  Real home-made cake, a taste of home for patients and relatives.

A ‘Ministry of Presence’ in so many ways, whether outwardly in the form of chaplaincy team members and MU members, or in the form of cake, fiddle muffs or switch boards, what does it matter, as long as you do it to the least of those amongst us, you do it to Me, recognising the divine and human in all of us.

Revd Peter Wells
Lead Chaplain at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust

Listen to David Primrose, Director of Transforming Communities at the Diocese of Lichfield on why dementia friendly communities are being prioritised in his area.

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