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Oct. 31, 2003

Alzheimer's Awareness Month

November is National Alzheimer's Awareness Month.

For Calvin professor Glenn Weaver marking the month is both a personal and professional responsibility. That's because as a professor of psychology one of his areas of expertise is Alzheimer's and spirituality. But he also saw Alzheimer's up-close in his mother.

Weaver says Christians think of Alzheimer's as a health problem, which it is, but do not ponder its spiritual significance.

His mother was diagnosed with the disease in the mid 1980s. He says after the diagnosis the family had a label for what afflicted their mother and a grim prognosis, but they had little insight into the psychological meanings Alzheimer's might hold for her life, including her spiritual life.

Weaver has been pleased to see the spiritual side of Alzheimer's becoming more widely addressed in recent months.

He was recently quoted in a Fort Myers, Florida, newspaper article about a new Sunday worship service at Arden Courts, a Fort Myers assisted-living community for Alzheimer’s patients

The service is designed specifically for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. It's shorter. Sermons are simple. Familiar hymns are sung. No one cares if someone speaks out or stands up at the wrong time.

Weaver says such services need to happen not only at assisted-living communities, but also local churches, synagogues, mosques and more.

"It's important," he says, "to give patients a sense of being 'located in moral space.'"

He has made that a primary area of his research in recent years. In 2000 he pulled together a team of Calvin psychology majors and they set about interviewing family members of Alzheimer's patients, looking, says Weaver, for changes in experiences of God and faith. And while the research continues, it has already brought to light some important truths about the relationships between dementia and spirituality.

Some are obvious. People with dementia lose the ability to follow most text-based presentations, including listening to sermons or following the order of a worship service. Says Weaver: "People who relied on these activities as key mediators of God's grace often found it more difficult than before to find God's presence when they most needed spiritual assurance and security."

But Weaver's research also showed that patients almost never have the opportunity to take communion once they stop attending worship services. It's a vital oversight he says.

"It's amazing the awakening of memory that taking communion can have. It offers a sense of community. But it also takes on a new meaning -- this is the presence of Christ for you. It makes it real and concrete in a manner that those suffering with Alzheimer's are capable of experiencing."

Scientists believe that up to five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, which usually begins after the age of 60. Alzheimer's is a slow disease, starting with mild memory problems and ending with severe brain damage. According to the National Institute on Aging the course the disease takes, and how fast changes occur, vary from person to person. On average, patients live from eight to ten years after they are diagnosed, though the disease can last for as many as 20 years.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)