Dementia cries out for spiritual sustenance

November 29, 2010

Fr. John Siberski


EDMONTON — As life expectancy in North America increases, so too does the preponderance for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. With aging, spirituality becomes of utmost importance in the lives of patients and their families.

"Dementia causes the patient to forget. It should not cause us to forget the patient," said Father John Siberski, who gave Covenant Health's annual Gordon Reid MacDonald Memorial Lecture.

Siberski quoted Psalm 71.9: "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent."

His lecture, delivered Nov. 17 at the Misericordia Community Hospital Auditorium, was called I Did Not Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Aging, Dementia and Spirituality.

As a Jesuit priest, psychiatrist and professor, Siberski, 61, offered a unique perspective on the value of spirituality in the lives of those with dementia. He is an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

A demented patient might not remember his daughter's name, said Siberski, but he might still remember that he loves her and she is important to him.

The same can be said for the religious experience.

"Just because we cannot articulate our memories doesn't mean they're not there," said Siberski.

In the 20th century, life expectancy increased tremendously. Life expectancy for North Americans in 1900 was 48 years. Due largely to antibiotics and advances in public health care, by 1960 average life expectancy increased to 69 years. By 1987 it was 75 years and today it's 78.


With aging comes dementia and people lose their ability for language, emotion, cognition and memory. Dementia is the price of a long life.

Religion, theology and spirituality are valuable assets throughout the human life, including the aged and demented. Religiosity is a social phenomenon found only in the human culture.

"Religion is rooted in the past, active in the present and points to the future. Religion is like memory. Memory is the union of past, present and future."

Memory is also crucial to our humanity and sense of self.

"Memory implies the capacity to encode, store and retrieve information. Dementia patients have problems with one or more of those capacities," he said.

As people age, they tend to lose acquaintances. Their friends move away or die. When this occurs, people lose the confirmation of their own lives and stories, Siberski said. They require familiarities, such as religious experiences, to stay connected with the past.


There are five dimensions of religiosity and spirituality. They are ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, experiential and consequential. Even for those with dementia, with impaired cognitive abilities, the spiritual aspects of their lives are still important.

For family, friends and caregivers to help maintain the spiritual life of a person with dementia, Siberski suggested reading familiar Scripture passages and prayers, playing sacred music, their favourite hymns, and taking the individual to familiar worship services when possible.

Religious symbols and objects will still hold meaning in the lives of the demented.

He recommended watching televised religious services with patients, as well as continued participation in the sacraments, observing religious feasts and staying with that which is familiar, as innovation might be confusing for them.