Take church to the elderly this Christmas

Helpful hints on how to involve people on the margins

Many churches powerfully use Christmas to share the message of Jesus’ love with people who do not regularly attend their Sunday gatherings.

But how many are not expecting people to come to church and, instead, are taking church to them!

Can we love and share Jesus love older people and those living with dementia?

Christmas is about God loving the outcast – that state we all are in thanks to turning away from how God wants us to be in relationship with him. Doing our own thing causes us to be outcasts from that perfect relationship. But God loves us, the outcasts, and he clearly showed that by sending Jesus. God’s own son who chose to step down from heaven to be born in a stable to lead us back into right relationship with God.

So Christmas is about intentional love for the outcast. But are we displaying that?

If we are neglecting some who are outcasts or on the fringes of our society, does that mean we are not sharing Jesus?

Older people and those living with dementia are often found at the edge of our society. Many of us are simply not aware of what life can be like for them.

Loneliness is a huge issue for many older people and particularly for those living with dementia, as a survey by Alzheimer’s Australia found.

Our cultural expectations around Christmas can heighten this loneliness, as well as the fact Christmas often reminds people of those who have died.

Loneliness often compounds people’s depression, another very common problem for older people and those living with dementia. Did you know that older men are the second highest demographic suicide risk in Australia and that biggest killer of women in Australia is dementia.

Amid our “Christmas craziness”, can we love and share Jesus love older people and those living with dementia?

Bring church to them

While there is significant overlap, there are two key ways to focus our loving of an older person or someone living with dementia: individually and corporately.

Individually, love can be focused towards a specific person – a family member, congregant, or neighbour.

Corporate love aims to reach where a group naturally meets or to offer an event that will attract that group.

Corporate events take significant planning and most 2018 events will be already organised. But your church still could consider holding Christmas events at places where older people congregate.

To reach older people and those living with dementia, you could put on a creative event such as:

  • Christmas craft or cooking 
    Could the cooks in the congregation help people make or decorate Christmas food (rum balls, Rocky Road or Christmas pudding)? Could the youth group help people to make Christmas decorations?
  • Bus trip
    Organise a bus to take people for a tour around Christmas lights. On the trip, sing carols and give a Christmas devotional. Also, the 50 cent cones at McDonald’s are typically a hit. Many residential care facilities would love to partner with a local church to do this. Additionally, a bus trip is great for people living with dementia who could wander at a “normal” event.
  • Christmas stall
    Could your church take a Christmas stall to an aged care facility, so residents could select and be assisted to wrap a presents or write cards for their loved ones?
  • Carolling
    Could a group go to the local nursing home and go carolling in the corridors? Each resident could be given a small gift and a card.
  • Bible Study
    Could you offer to run an Advent Bible study series at the local aged care facility?

Other events which lend themselves to sharing Jesus with older people and those living with dementia include:

  • Sunday School performances
  • Carols by Candlelight (Use electric candles)
  • Church choir performances
  • Church services with carols and communion
What can you give?

We all want to value our loved ones and give gifts to them. We also all like to be valued and to receive gifts. But doing those things can be challenging for many older people and those living with dementia.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Send a Christmas gift or card.
  • Take a few minutes to call or organise a video call.
  • It is almost impossible to give a Christmas card or a gift if you can’t get to the shops or shop online. Could you help an older person with transport or help a person shop online? Also consider how you can provide opportunities for older people to give by serving: Could grandma make the Christmas pudding? Could uncle help the kids decorate the tree? Could a person help by folding the serviettes?
  • Photographs are a perennial favourite but consider sending a video. The advantage of cards, photographs and videos is that they can be enjoyed time and time again.
  • Time is a huge gift, particularly for people who are not working. There are 168 hours in a week. Assuming someone sleeps for 10 hours and spends five hours with eating/hygiene per day that leaves 63 hours to fill. Could you give an IOU for a coffee date or offer an hour of visiting to combat someone else’s loneliness?
  • Another gift idea is a Christian resource, such as something from the Bible Society/HammondCare’s “Faith for Life” series. Joy to the World shares the message of Christmas with people living with moderate to advanced dementia.
  • Christmas is an intensely spiritual time. We can facilitate this spirituality by assisting a person to attend events and services.
  • Offer to pray together.
  • Could you spend time listening to carols or even singing carols together?
  • Many older people are post-literate. Due to vision, dexterity or strength issues they can no longer read their Bible. Perhaps you read the nativity accounts with them or could you listen to an audio Bible together.

Having considered how we can bring “church” to older people or those living with dementia, let’s briefly think about we can make our Christmas events and activities more friendly for older people and people with dementia. A great place to start is with being intentional about how our churches cater well to this often overlooked group in our society.

While every older person or person living with dementia is different, there are some basic challenges with often inhibit or stop them attending and enjoying “normal” Christmas events. With minimal effort, we can remove these challenges.

  • Transport
    How can people get to and back from the event or activity?
  • Safety
    Is the event or activity walker and wheelchair friendly? Are there trip hazards that could be removed or managed? Is there appropriate food and drink? For example, false teeth and nuts often don’t mix.
  • Comfort
    How close is an appropriate toilet? Is there clear signage to it? Is there appropriate seating (comfortable chairs with arms) or space for wheelchairs? Could a quiet area be set aside for people to take a break? Try to keep events to less than an hour or have a break to help people who are incontinent.
  • Invitation
    Older people and those living with dementia tend not to party crash! Written invitations need to be in large lettering, with high contrast between the text and background (such as black text on a yellow background. Also, avoid images behind the text). Ideally the invitation would specify that an event is dementia friendly. People living with dementia, who have indicated they want to come, may benefit from being reminded.
  • Carers
    Many older people and those living with dementia require significant care. Those providing that care often do so on a 24/7 basis. Providing them with coverage so they can have a break to attend a Christmas event or activity is a huge gift.

None of these considerations require huge changes, but they all have the potential to powerfully share Jesus’ love with older people and those living with dementia.

This Christmas, will you be able to share the message and the heart of Christmas with at least one older person or someone living with dementia? So they would realise that not only does God remember and love them but his church does too.

Now also is a good time to consider how your church will share Jesus love in 2019 with the outcast.

The author works in Aged Care but preferred not to be identified.

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