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For Those With Dementia, Hartford Church a Place to Commune, Connect

  • The Rev. Connie Moser, a volunteer who has presided over both services so far, thanks Margaret Stoddard for her support and attendance. Stoddard led services as pastor at United Church of Christ in Hartford from 1977-1987. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A nondenominational church service for people with memory impairment and their families is being held at the United Church of Christ, in Hartford, Vt., on the first Sunday of the month. Local pastors and organizers from the medical community volunteer to lead the services each month. Organizer Mick Byers hopes that the traditional setting will be a memory aid for those with dementia and other memory impairments. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mick Byers plays hymns at a new service for those with memory impairment at the United Church of Christ, in Hartford, Vt., on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Byers is helping to organize the service, which is scheduled to take place at United Church of Christ on the first Sunday of each month. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sheryl Miller, left, of Sharon, Vt., turns the pages in a hymn book as she reads along with her father, Russell Crane, of Woodstock, Vt., during the new AD Church service at the United Church of Christ, in Hartford, Vt., on Sunday, December 4, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A dozen supporters, organizers and worshippers attended the second monthly AD Church service held for people with memory impairment and their families at United Church of Christ, in Hartford, Vt., on Sunday, December 4, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thelma LaCrois and Jack Heavisides, both of Ascutney, Vt., attend a new worship service for those with memory impairment at the United Church of Christ in Hartford, Vt., on Sunday afternoon, November 13, 2016. LaCrois and Heavisides, who are living partners, said they came for each other because they feel they will both need this kind of support as they grow older. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Those who participated in the service were invited to attend a reception that followed in the church hall at the United Church of Christ, in Hartford, Vt., Sunday, December 4, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



STORY BY AIMEE CARUSO
Saturday, December 10, 2016

Hartford — Dementia brings excruciating losses. It can rob people of the ability to recognize family and friends, and lead to isolation from the circles they’re accustomed to traveling in, including worship communities. But a new church service aims to provide people with the disease and their caregivers a comfortable place to commune with God, and one another.

The AD Church — A for Alzheimer’s, D for dementia — is hosted by Greater Hartford United Church of Christ, a classic white clapboard structure on Maple Street. The volunteer organizers hope the trappings — wooden pews and stained glass, a pipe organ, and the ritual itself will provide a sense of ease sometimes lacking in people with the disease, which is commonly marked by memory loss, anxiety and depression.

“The familiar elements offer them security, when they go through doors and see that, ‘Ah, I’m in the right place,’ ” said Mick Byers, one of the organizers. “They realize, ‘I’ve been in a place like this before and enjoyed it.’ ”

A nurse who manages a dementia unit at Valley Terrace, Byers landed on the idea while leading a worship service at the assisted living facility.

The residents were not just enjoying it, but “actually connecting,” particularly as they sang along with traditional hymns.

“You could see it and you could feel it,” said Byers, who plays guitar during the services. “Their eyes are closed. Some of them are even in tears.”

“This is right,” he remembers thinking. “This is good.”

The monthly nondenominational service includes Holy Communion, the Lord’s Prayer and other staples, but none of the bits people with dementia might find frustrating, such as lengthy announcements. No collection plate is passed and, regarding membership, Byers said they don’t envision going “down that road.”

The sermon is short, maybe five or 10 minutes, and simple. Last Sunday, the Rev. Connie Moser offered a musing on The Polar Express and the power of belief.

“Folks with dementia can’t hold onto abstract concepts,” so a long talk wouldn’t be beneficial for them, Byers said.

To spell the caregivers, volunteers with an understanding of dementia are on hand, ready to help if someone needs to wander around or gets hungry or anxious. Fellowship follows in the church basement, where last month worshippers chatted over cider, cookies and homemade banana bread. Byers expects that’s where “the real magic” will happen.

“We hope families can connect with one another and connect with the staff to make it a little community within the community,” he said.

SallyAnn Silfies, pastor at Greater United Hartford Church of Christ, said it’s important that churchgoers with dementia be given the option to continue.

“It’s always important to ask, ‘Would you like to go to church?’ ” said Silfies, who also volunteers at the new service. “They may not be able to answer, but if you bring them one Sunday,” something might “trip their memories.”

Such memories might not be of a specific church, Moser said in a separate interview. Instead, they may be “more about the feeling than the information.”

The important thing is making a connection.

“People with dementia are just like you and me, except they have an illness that’s robbed them of their memories,” said Moser, a chaplain with Bayada Hospice in Norwich. If they can connect with someone over a memory that’s sparked or in the moment, “there’s a realization, ‘I’m alive.’ ”

The AD Church meets on the first Sunday of each month at 1:30 p.m., but January’s service may be pushed to the 8th, due to the holiday. While it’s aimed at people with dementia and their caregivers, anyone can come.

“This is a place for everybody,” Moser said. “You’re welcome to come here and experience a time of God’s love.”

Last month about a dozen people attended, including Silfies and Moser. Russell Crane, of Woodstock, came with his daughter Sheryl Miller, one of organizers.

Crane, 87, who Miller said is becoming “a little forgetful,” said he liked the service and the music. The former dairy farmer said he’d go again, if Miller came and picked him up.

Organizers are working to spread the word through local health clinics and on the AD Church Facebook page, and hope to offer transportation for people who need it, starting in the spring.

At least one thing will remain the same, however: Parishioners should expect music, and lots of it.

People with dementia go through their whole day not being able to remember the little things, Byers said. The losses pile up, leading to agitation and anxiety, which can easily spiral into depression.

But by focusing on what they can do, a lot of the depression falls away, he said. And song is a powerful tool.

During the service, only the first, usually the best-known verse of the hymns are played. Twice.

People might struggle to recall the words the first time around but then catch on the second time, Byers said. “They love the idea that they can remember.”

At the December service, bright red poinsettias in the background, Moser played Christmas carols on piano, closing with Silent Night.

“The words are in your program,” she told the group, “or you can just remember them from your heart.”

Almost everyone joined in.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.