Chaplain Hal Cole talks to the ministers, clergy and church leaders attending a dementia education workshop on Thursday, March 15, at Due West United Methodist Church in Marietta. PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Berrios
Photo: LAURA BERRIOS For The AJC
Photo: LAURA BERRIOS For The AJC

Churches learn how to minister to families facing Alzheimer’s

Helping families who are facing Alzheimer’s is a passion for Sheila Welch. She walked that journey herself years ago as caregiver to her mom, and now leads a dementia ministry at her church, Due West United Methodist in Marietta.

The ministry came about when two women from the church discovered they were both caring for moms with Alzheimer’s. “They literally fell into each others arms in the parking lot,” Welch said.

From that encounter, a support group was formed and the ministry has continued to grow and evolve over the past six years. Last year, the church served more than 1,000 families through dementia education events, such as workshops, caregiver support groups and an annual caregivers’ conference.

The next natural step was to help other churches start their own caregivers’ ministry.

“I saw what was happening in our own ministry and how it continued to grow and I thought, our area cannot be the only one that needs this,” Welch said.

Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, is a terminal illness characterized by memory loss, confusion and a decline in judgment and reasoning. It can also involve changes in personality and behavior. Family caregivers can become consumed by their tasks and feel isolated, even from their church.

Due West UMC put together a tool kit and a how-to template and invited pastors and church leaders to a workshop last October. They sponsored a secondary workshop on Thursday focusing on ministering to those living with the disease, which in turn helps the whole family.

Welch says these initial workshops will become annual events to raise awareness of dementia and provide tools for churches that want to do something to help.

Cindy Snyder of Madison attended the initial workshop, seeking to better help a neighbor living with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s.

She returned home with a determination to start something in her own 500-member church in Madison, about 60 miles east of Atlanta.

Snyder and Margaret Ligon, director of adult spiritual growth at Madison First United Methodist, formed a team and put together a community workshop. They brought in Atlanta Alzheimer’s Association speakers and others. “In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, if we have a good turnout, we would love to start a support group here,” Ligon said. There were no dementia caretaker support groups in Morgan County.

Attendees did indeed want a support group, and many expressed surprise that others were going through the same difficulties they were.

“We saw people walk out of the workshop, and it was like they could finally take a deep breath,” Ligon said.

Madison UMC had its first monthly caregivers’ support group meeting in February. Trained facilitators helped guide discussions, but mostly participants told their own stories, voiced their concerns and gave tips they’ve learned along the way.

Together, they began to see “how to look at this as a happy journey, not a horrible journey,” Ligon said.

Ligon said it wasn’t difficult to put together the conference or start the support group. They used the template set up by Due West UMC, and looked at what other churches in neighboring counties were doing.

Welch said some churches may not want to start a whole new ministry for caregivers, but can help these families simply by raising awareness and educating the congregation and community about dementia. She said this helps break through the stigma and keeps families from feeling isolated.

Another starting place is teaching people how to communicate with those who have dementia so they can visit church members afflicted with the disease. This keeps them feeling like they are a part of the congregation, Welch said.

“I don’t think every church has to have a ministry for dementia, but I do feel strongly it is the church’s responsibility to meet the needs of those who face dementia,” Welch said.

Chaplain Hal Cole talks to the ministers, clergy and church leaders attending a dementia education workshop on Thursday, March 15, at Due West United Methodist Church in Marietta. PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Berrios
Photo: LAURA BERRIOS For the AJC
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