The Power of Faith in Alzheimer’s & Dementia

May 2, 2019 - Virginia Biggar

During my time with UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, I’ve had many conversations with people living with and caring for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s. From these conversations, I’ve learned that faith is integral to how they cope with the tremendous uncertainty, decline and loss that invariably accompanies this disease.

In response, many faith communities, denominations, and organizations across the country have implemented creative, meaningful ways to support the spiritual life of these families and educate their communities about Alzheimer’s disease. Emerging scientific evidence is telling us that Alzheimer’s and dementia may be delayed or even potentially prevented through proactive, risk-reducing actions taken across the lifespan. We can empower our faith communities to prioritize brain health and foster hope in our congregations by creating dementia friendly programs that treat affected members with dignity and care.

We know in our hearts that this support is valuable and needed, and now we have powerful data confirming this. The UsAgainstAlzheimer’s A-LIST is a standing cohort of more than 6,000 individuals ready and willing to participate in patient and caregiver research through online surveys. Together, these insights create a unique, rapid-response, self-reported data resource that represents the voices of those living with Alzheimer’s and caregivers. In a recent A-LIST survey, 70% of respondents said faith is part of their Alzheimer’s journey, and while they want support from their faith communities, the resources are often not available. 

In honor of today’s National Day of Prayer, we hope to enrich the brain health conversation across all faith communities. By continuing to make congregations of all types welcoming and accommodating places for everyone affected by Alzheimer’s, we can create a hopeful environment of inclusion and empowerment.

We asked several leaders from our Faith Coalition to reflect on the need, opportunity, and challenges that faith communities face in supporting those living with dementia and in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Their thoughts are detailed below.


The latest research shows that prioritizing brain health across the lifespan is an essential part of building cognitive resilience as one way we can all participate in being brain healthy. What do you think your faith community knows about brain health and how do you get your congregants engaged in the brain health discussion?

“I believe that the physical and mental health of those living with dementia [and Alzheimer’s] can greatly benefit from an active social life and a healthy spiritual environment. Faith-related activities, whether communal or individual, can greatly help those living with dementia [and Alzheimer’s] to promote a sense of belonging in a group and to develop their spiritual life, thus contributing to better physical and mental health and their overall wellbeing – by enhancing feelings of self-worth, by piercing sentiments of loneliness, and by creating hope.”

Rabbi Israel de la Piedra
Rabbi and Director of Spiritual Care
Miami Jewish Health

“Studies have shown that [engaging with] music [or] learning to play an instrument [or] sing improves attention, memory, problem-solving abilities, and moods. Community worship with the inclusion of singing traditional and contemporary hymns are wonderful ways to stimulate and promote brain health as well as nurture the spiritual needs of a parishioner with dementia. So often, I’ve witnessed someone with dementia ’inspired’ by music to the point of making movements to the beat and even singing along with a sense of joy.”

Stephanie M. Craddock
Small Groups Director
First Mount Zion Baptist Church
Dumfries, VA

UsAgainstAlzheimer’s recently released a call to action via a white paper entitled “Creating an Optimal System of Brain Health Care in the United States.” The paper calls for making an annual brain health check-up a basic part of routine healthcare as one way we all can participate in being brain healthy. Are the members of your congregation interested in learning more about prioritizing brain health? How can you better engage your congregation to make brain health a key overall health priority?

“Faith communities have a special opportunity to broaden and enhance ‘brain health’ by affirming the importance of belonging, self-worth, and meaning as components of health. Dementia is more than a disease of the brain! It is a psycho, social, spiritual, physical challenge. Faith communities provide a broader lens through which to view persons and diseases. We are more than our brains, our memories, our capacities. We are beloved children of God, made in the divine image, with infinite worth and dignity, whatever our capacities. Faith communities need to embody the components of total health and brain health – belonging, worth, meaning, hope, love!”

Bishop (retired) Kenneth L. Carder
The United Methodist Church

Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Mild Cognitive Impairment can affect all members of faith communities, including our faith leaders. If you are living with or caring for someone with dementia, how has your faith sustained you through your experience? If you lead a congregation, has it affected the way you lead?

“My faith has sustained me in this unexpected and often difficult journey and helped me move from ’Why me?’ to ’What next?’ I was devastated when I had to leave full-time ministry because of my cognitive problems, but God has given me a new ministry – with and to people who are living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias – and also to our care partners. My faith is not passive.  I’m not sitting on the sidelines waiting for God to fix everything while I watch. My faith is active and I believe that we are called to partner with God, to roll up our sleeves, and [to] help in some way.

“On this National Day of Prayer, I urge you to pray not just with your lips, but with your feet. It’s time to move and get involved. What can you do? Here are some ideas to get people started:

  • Sign up to participate in a clinical study. We desperately need participants to move research forward. 
  • Provide respite care for a neighbor [or family member] caring for a loved one with dementia.
  • Invite a speaker to come to your house of worship to talk about the programs and services in your area.
  • Have your congregation host a support group or start a memory café. Life is full of blessings. When we share them, we end up with many more!”

The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Huling Hummel, DM
Pastor, Presbyterian Church (USA), Elmira, NY
Member, Dept. of Health of Human Services National Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research, Care and Service

Watch more on Cynthia’s Alzheimer’s journey.

A majority of respondents from UsAgainstAlzheimer’s A-LIST Faith Leadership Survey (77%) believe it is important for congregations and other faith communities to be “dementia friendly” by fostering spiritual connection and meaningful engagement for those living with dementia, while also supporting caregivers and families. What dementia friendly programs are working best in your community? How do you recommend others best implement these programs into their own communities?

“Our church is working to become ’dementia friendly’ by going beyond nametags. Our endeavor is to…recognize the personhood of everyone regardless of their cognitive health. Our greeters are learning to be aware of, how to best communicate with, and welcome folks with dementia.

“Signs are clearly displayed for restroom locations and other areas. We have a quiet space available that offers visual and audible connection with the ongoing service. Our minister is concerned with his aging congregation’s brain health and has established a dementia care ministry, led by a layperson that was a caregiver turned advocate for people with dementia.”

Beth Reinert
Project Manager, Dementia Friendly Alabama, Mobile
Dementia Care Ministry, Christ Anglican Church

Results from the A-LIST survey show that dementia friendly faith programs can face substantial barriers, including a lack of resources in terms of both people and money. How do we raise awareness on this issue and move past barriers to make faith communities dementia friendly and a welcoming space for all?  

“A paradigm shift is long overdue in the institutions of our communities both locally and nationally. Exposure to early childhood education is one key in solving this issue. The younger we expose our children to brain health, memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and the more our communities are educated regarding the disease, I believe greater [advocacy efforts] will move in the direction of breaking down barriers on every level.”

Stephanie M. Craddock
Small Groups Director
First Mount Zion Baptist Church
Dumfries, VA

“We offer dementia education in various forms to support, educate, and promote ongoing community resources and activities in the following ways:

  1. Set up a bulletin board in the parish hall or lobby that offers dementia education, resources, and local support.
  2. Invite dementia experts to speak at special events and church services.
  3. Offer space for local organizations to put on their dementia-related and caregiver programs for the entire community.
  4. Join FaithUnitedAgainstAlzheimer’s to add your voice to advocacy and keep abreast of the latest calls to action.
  5. Keep a well-stocked church library of books for spiritual encouragement for caregivers.
  6. Offer a 45-minute, intimate communion service midweek at noon in a small meeting room, led by a minister who is sensitive to the needs of people with dementia.

These actions do not require a lot of money or volunteers, just a sensitive ministerial team who recognize the spiritual needs of their members.

Beth Reinert
Project Manager, Dementia Friendly Alabama, Mobile
Dementia Care Ministry, Christ Anglican Church

About the Author


Virginia Biggar

As Director of Communities, Ginny has helped launch the Activists, Clergy and Veterans Networks, Faith United Against Alzheimer’s Coalition, UsA2's Facebook Care Community, On Pluto Podcast, the A-LIST, and the guide to clinical trials "Curing Alzheimer's: Clinical Trials are the Key."