For many people, a spiritual connection gives them a source of reassurance, hope and meaning in times of distress. Those living with Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia often find themselves exploring their spirituality to seek comfort or maintain a connection to a higher power while going through so many cognitive and physical changes spurred on by their disease. Likewise, their caregivers (often times close family members) go through a spiritual re-connection as they struggle to make sense of the changes their aging parent or spouse are going through.
Clinging to faith or renewing spiritual beliefs gives people a way to find peace, even when their world is turned upside down. Believing in something bigger than their disease helps them find perspective and keep positive throughout their struggles. As a caregiver, you may be so consumed with attending to everything your loved one needs for daily living that you miss an important component of the process: their spiritual well-being. Caring for someone with dementia is no easy task. You’re completely focused on the practical aspects of their care, from ensuring they’re eating enough and taking their medication to keeping them safe and in good physical health. It can certainly become overwhelming.
It’s easy to assume that your loved one’s spiritual needs are no longer important due to their memory loss. Perhaps your loved one was never particularly religious, so you figure their spiritual needs are non-existent. You may be very wrong. Spirituality doesn’t always have anything to do with any set religion or rules; rather, it’s intensely personal to each individual, having a profound effect on the person both emotionally and physically.
What is Spiritual Well-Being?
Spirituality is often intertwined in the context of religion. But even people who don’t necessarily have religious faith still possess belief systems that bring meaning, purpose and comfort to their life. This will form the basis of their relationships, families, creative outlook, culture or a love for nature. The search for meaning and striving for emotional connection both become more important as we get older and must face declining cognitive and physical abilities. This is often when people seek solace in their values and beliefs to not only make sense of what is happening, but to find hope and prepare for the long road ahead of them. Spirituality can help not only give a patient a sense of purpose, but also help them feel included and reconnected. As part of spirituality, essential human requirements include a need to:
- Be respected, valued and appreciated
- Feel supported in handling losses of relatives, friends, optimal health, independence and memory
- Maintain a sense of self
- Feel recognized and understood
- Belong to a community
- Forgive and to be forgiven
- Enjoy unconditional love
- Show anger and doubt
- Keep personal dignity
- Find meaning, hope and purpose
- Be supported in their cultural and religious beliefs
These are all spiritual rights because they all relate to the internal experience of life and are deeply connected to our sense of identity. This is why we need to keep seeing our loved ones as humans rather than just their disease. Compassionate care involves so much more than addressing the clinical upkeep of life such as medical and physical needs. Because spiritual needs are intangible, we tend to overlook this vital area of our lives and that of our loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s.
How Spirituality Benefits Dementia Patients
Each person expresses and experiences spirituality differently but there are some common benefits to turning to spiritual relief in coping with dementia:
- Easier acceptance of their disease
- Relief from worry and anxiety
- Lower stress levels
- Fewer depression cases
- Maintaining connection to family, friends and community
- Increased quality of life
Some studies even suggest that keeping a spiritual connection can actually slow down cognitive decline and prevent further memory loss. WebMD outlined a study in which researchers found a slower rate of mental decline in Alzheimer’s patients with higher levels of religion and spirituality. The results draw from both scientific and spiritual evidence. There is much speculation on why there is a connection. One possibility is that many spiritual activities center around the senses and sensory memory, which in many cases remains relatively intact. Perhaps religious habits tend to be familiar and routine-oriented, which can be helpful for those suffering from dementia because they can strengthen the brain’s memory centers. Or maybe it’s because people who take part in spiritual activities often feel better and more centered afterwards, lowering the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol released into the body.
Whatever the reason, those with dementia and their caregivers find solace in spirituality, bringing them a level of peace and understanding to an otherwise chaotic situation. Turn to our caregivers for the skill and compassion you’re seeking for your loved one suffering from dementia.