Rituals Raise Hope, Preserve Tradition and Create Joy for People with Dementia

By Richards, Marty | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

Rituals Raise Hope, Preserve Tradition and Create Joy for People with Dementia


Richards, Marty, Aging Today


Throughout life, secular and sacred rituals mark somber and joyous occasions. Some are small and experienced with intimates, like birthdays. Others are more inclusive- graduations, weddings or commitment ceremonies. Still others may involve the whole community, such as Memorial Day or July Fourth celebrations.

These observances remember our life in community and mark major occurrences. Sharing with others through such occasions can maintain a sense of meaning and keep us in touch with culture, community and spiritual traditions. Rituals can also raise hope and joy, and those with dementia can continue to participate in them.

It does not take full cognition to connect through ritual. Long-term memory, where traditions and rituals are deeply imbedded, remains intact longer than short-term memory. So despite cognitive limits, those with dementia may still enjoy observances that have been meaningful throughout their lives. Linking to larger traditions through ritual also facilitates communication between those with dementia and their care partners. Rituals can spark special moments of sharing.

Nonverbal communication is important to those with dementia and can be incorporated into rites through such actions as blessing a person with holy water, or putting hands in a prayer position-simple actions that transform ordinary time into sacred.

Assisting the Remembrance of Ritual

People with dementia need others to accompany them in their spiritual journey and assist with spiritual support. Caregivers can be proactive in adapting a ritual or remembrance for someone who does not remember it all. With a little coaching, spiritual memories can be accessed and celebrated.

To learn which rituals might be significant, consider the person's religious, spiritual, family, community and cultural backgrounds. Ask care partners about spiritual or secular traditions that might resonate. How have holidays been marked? What are family practices for special events? What observances are held? Is special clothing or food needed?

Familiarity with what had been meaningful is a starting place for ritual in the present, but rituals may need to be simplified. Are there prayers, Bible verses, hymns, liturgies or readings that have been favorites? Are there birthday songs or ways of doing things? Is there a placethe ocean or a mountain peak- that resonates with someone's spiritual life? Knowing these personal preferences can offer an opportunity for meaningful interaction through familiar observances.

Asking caregivers questions about the early part of a person's life will be helpful, as their charges may have practiced one tradition early in life and then changed to another. They may find comfort in practices from their years of religious formation because these are lodged in longterm memory. …

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Rituals Raise Hope, Preserve Tradition and Create Joy for People with Dementia
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