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Journeys of Faith and Spirit story

Award-winning program uses religious imagery to reach residents with Alzheimer’s
A resident looks at a religious image while the Rev. Norma Llewellyn shares a laugh with a Journeys of Faith and Spirit group.

A colorful picture features Jesus, surrounded by a group of children. As a small group of Ecumenical Community residents study the image, they note the exuberance on the children’s faces, the surrounding landscape, their clothing, the season and other details most people might miss.

For a few moments it seems as if the dementia these residents experience every day is gone. In a moment of clarity, one resident notes, “Those children don’t know how lucky they are to have Christ sit down and talk to them. I would like to have been there—to have a conversation. What a joy!”

These experiences for residents to reconnect with their spiritual journey, despite the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, are the basis for a program developed by Ecumenical Retirement Community and its affiliate Country Meadow Retirement Communities. Titled Journeys of Faith and Spirit, the group offers a spiritual exploration for residents with dementia. And, it has garnered national attention and praise.

In 2011, the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA), awarded Ecumenical Retirement Community and Country Meadows with its prestigious Best of the Best Award, winning the Resident and Family Service category for Journeys of Faith and Spirit.

The Rev. Howard West, M.Ed., M.Div, executive director of spiritual services, and Ashley Uhler, former executive director of program strategy, created Journeys of Faith and Spirit. They recognized that residents needed an outlet—in addition to the more traditional worship services and hymn sings—in which they could express their inner spiritual thoughts.

“In small groups of five to eight, residents are given a color copy of religious artwork and encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings about the image,” explains West. “Their comments are carefully noted by a chaplain or co-facilitator who then shares all the comments, in a story format, with the group. This reinforces and validates the memories, feelings and beliefs.”

The story format is an enjoyable time for residents who feel a sense of accomplishment and teamwork. The artwork represents a variety of religious and spiritual themes—such as love, forgiveness, salvation, kindness and compassion. Session outcomes have opened a treasure trove of long-term memories from childhood Sunday school classes and years of church life.

According to West, “The visual images trigger the recall and sharing of deeper memories, thoughts and feelings about matters of faith, religious beliefs, spirituality that have not come to the surface in traditional religious services or Bible studies.”

There have been positive outcomes in resident behaviors with those who have attended the group. “We have observed positive developments including a decrease in behavior disturbances, increased attention span and focus, increased verbal communication skills and even an overall sense of peace and well-being,” remarks Uhler.

As a Journeys of Faith and Spirit group at Ecumenical Retirement Community looks at another image, this one of the baptism of Jesus, their chaplain, the Rev. Norma Llewellyn, M.Div., S.T.M., asks residents a series of questions to gather their thoughts.

She asks, “What do you think is happening in this photo?” Residents share their observations as Llewellyn validates every comment. Comments include, “He is lifting his arms in praise,” “he is looking at an angel in a cloud,” “he is lifting his hands to the Holy Spirit.”

Llewellyn further engages the group by asking, “What do you suppose the picture means?” This inspires the residents to dig further to find meaning in the photo. One resident says, “He is talking to the Lord.”

Llewellyn has noticed improvements when residents participate in a Journeys of Faith and Spirit group. “Most of our residents receiving care for dementia tend to keep to themselves. I’ve noticed that during the group, residents interact with each other and share memories, feelings and observations. It’s wonderful to see them connect.”

West agrees. “They leave with a feeling of competence and fellowship and feeling connected with each other and their God that they believe in.”

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