Faith communities make a positive impact in supporting caregivers.

In a recent joint effort by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and RTI International, researchers explored five interfaith communities that provide care for loved ones suffering with dementia and their caregivers.

The report, “Faith-Related Programs in Dementia Care, Support and Education,” summarizes best practices in religious support for families and caregivers and tips on how to build strong, sustainable communities of care.

The research highlights four trends that make for successful communities of care:

1. Faith-based communities enhance the well-being of caregivers.

“Studies have shown that spirituality and religious activity may provide relief from anxiety, reduced behavioral disturbances and improved quality of life for people with dementia,” the report said.

Yet, religious activity wanes over time because of the declining health of loved ones. The longer a caregiver and her loved one stay home, the fewer cards, visits and invitations to activities take place over time.

Faith-based communities of care, however, can close the gap for caregivers and their families who need solace, support and ongoing professionalized care.

Communities can provide, for instance, intentional programs that increase health and wellness, support groups, educational workshops and spiritual practices that promote faith and discipleship.

Caregivers provide hours of care to loved ones; houses of worship must be intentional to either meet their needs or work with others to help provide support and resources along the journey of faith.

2. Faith-based communities that collaborate are sustainable and successful in prolonging and providing sustainable support.

Those providing support for caregivers and their families – and churches that seek to do the same – cannot go it alone.

Each community featured in the report collaborated with other churches, nonprofits and government agencies for volunteer training, grant and fundraising awareness, space usage, resource allocation and diversified support.

When it comes to caring for families, churches need to reach out to one another and even other faith groups for support.

In some instances, one church provided space for a program, others provided volunteers, and local associations provided educational resources to train volunteers and caregivers.

Collaboration also promotes a wider participation from the community, including promotion of events and workshops as well as little things that make a difference, such as providing transportation for loved ones and their families to get to support groups and the community.

As resources are few and quality volunteers limited, faith-based communities must seek collaborative models for caring for all God’s children in their local area.

3. Faith-based communities help assure sacred and safe interactions.

Some of the institutions that were a part of the study had standalone spaces, while others found sites that provided space.

Whether it is standalone or a partnership, having a safe and devoted space for care and support assures safety and sacred interactions.

This is especially important with people with dementia: Routine and predictability promote well-being; having a space that is familiar allows for people to feel comfortable and welcomed.

Having a devoted space also allows for ongoing education and volunteer training. Volunteers work within the confines of a manageable area, know all of the resources that are at hand, and value having a meeting place where they can interact with people who need room to grow, be and live out their calling as caregivers or care receivers.

Standalone facilities, though difficult to come by, are optimal for this type of ministry.

4. Faith, collaboration and sacred space enhance creative engagement.

Creative engagement with loved ones emerges when we put faith to work, collaborate with others and devote a sacred space to care and support others.

Although many communities provide basic services – fellowship meals, chapel services and support groups – these trends lend themselves to other creative ventures:

  • A writer’s workshop can help dementia patients find creative avenues to tell their stories and leave a written legacy for loved ones.
  • A movie or film night with caregivers can promote new ways of seeing their role as caregivers and can encourage intentional conversations about the promises or perils of the caregiving life.
  • Caregiver workshops can provide much-needed resources for self-care, grief support or caregiver empowerment.
  • Webinars can expand the promotional base of a ministry as well as provide ongoing education to the community at large.

As communities continue to experience ministry to those suffering from dementia (and other longer-term illnesses) and the caregivers who help serve that most vulnerable population, it will be increasingly important for faith-based support services to reach out in ever-creative ways.

Research shows that support services make a difference. Faith, collaboration, sacred space and creative engagement only bolster the type of resources that make for a great, well-rounded community of care.

Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida. He is the author of “Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey,” a book of articles and homilies. A version of this article first appeared on A Tapestry of Love, a blog he co-authors with Daphne Reiley. It is used with permission. He also writes on his personal blog, Baptist Spirituality.

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