The Spirit is Alive and Moving through Residents of Phoebe Ministries

Facilitator: “Does God laugh?”

Resident: “Yes.”

Facilitator: “Why do you think God laughs?”

Resident: “Because God taught me to laugh.”

Residents with mid- to late-stage dementia at United Church of Christ-related Phoebe Ministries in Pennsylvania feel the spirit move in unexpected and wonderful ways, thanks to the Spirit Alive pastoral care program run by Phoebe’s Center for Excellence in Dementia Care.

Begun in 2013, Spirit Alive is a multidisciplinary approach to ascertaining and addressing the pastoral and spiritual needs of Phoebe residents with dementia. From that initial group, the program quickly has expanded and, today, 12 groups meet weekly on the four Phoebe campuses.

“It’s really more like group spiritual direction,” says Kelly Carney, executive director of the center, and “the essential ingredient is that the direction of each meeting comes from the group.”

Residents enrolled in the program are divided into groups of between 6 and 10 members, so that the group experiences can be tailored to the needs of the participants. Weekly services incorporate multi-sensory experiences with music, props, prayer, and life reminiscences to convey familiar faith stories. Hymns are sung, sometimes scripture passages are read by residents, and group members have an opportunity to share part of their own stories.

“The 6-to-10 individuals in each group form a true community,” Carney says. The program, she adds, “is entirely about relationships: fostering relationships between each individual and God, and between each individual and their faith community. It’s about fostering and enhancing these relationships.”

People with dementia often are atemporal –– they can’t remember their past, or they have no idea what will happen in the next moment, so they live in the current moment only. Many elder care programs are linear, which Carney says doesn’t really work with residents with dementia. What makes Spirit Alive unique is its spontaneity and emphasis on letting the movement of the spirit guide the group.

“The facilitators are trained to let go and discern the movement of the spirit in the group,” Carney says. “They learn to trust the residents: to allow the resident to take the lead, and trust the spirit moving among the group members.”

Often, says Carney, a member of a group will go off on a tangent in the middle of a Bible passage or some other activity. But what seems like a digression often is the key that opens the door into a path of deeper meaning, a sense of well-being, and of feeling loved by God and the other members of their group.

Phoebe’s Center for Excellence recently published a series of conversations between facilitators and residents called “Spirit Alive Resident Wisdom.” The random wisdom offered up in the booklet mirrors the fruitful experiences of the Spirit Alive participants.

Facilitator: “What does God’s love feel like?”

Resident: “Like a warm blanket that’s been thrown around me. I didn’t ask for it. It’s just given to me.”

Indeed, Spirit Alive has become a gift to the Phoebe residents with dementia. And, like God’s love, it continues to give and grow.

Phoebe Ministries is a United Church of Christ-related non-profit organization specializing in health care, housing, and support services for seniors. Founded in 1903, this CHHSM-member ministry offers a full continuum of care to suit the diverse needs of older adults. It has campuses in Allentown, Wernersville, Richlandtown, and Wyncote, Pa., as well as several affordable housing apartment buildings.

Facilitator/resident excerpts are from “Spirit Alive Resident Wisdom,” published by the Phoebe Center for Excellence in Dementia Care.

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