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In a Strange Land: People with Dementia and the Local Church – a guide and encouragement for ministry

In a Strange Land:

People with Dementia and the Local Church – a guide and encouragement for ministry,
Malcolm Goldsmith, 4M Publications, 2004, 239 pages,
ISBN 0–9530494–6–9, £14.95

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Review by Suzanne McDonald

As the fruit of Goldsmith’s research and practice over many years, In a Strange Land provides both a sure guide for those wondering how to begin to journey alongside people with dementia and a resource to which those who have shared that journey for longer will want to turn for further inspiration and encouragement.

His primary intention is to assist churches and their leaders to minister to people with dementia, their families and carers. Part one introduces his guiding principles: that the Lord’s song can indeed be heard and sung in the ‘strange land’ of dementia; that, daunting as it rightly seems, ministry to those coping with the daily reality of dementia is within the reach of all congregations; and that the person-centred approach to dementia care intersects with the patterns and priorities of the church’s ministry as a whole.

Goldsmith follows this by laying some indispensable foundations for ministry in this context. Part two provides a highly accessible presentation of current research concerning the demographics of dementia, and what happens in the brain and to the whole person as the condition takes hold, giving accounts of the experience of dementia from the perspective of people with dementia and their families. Especially valuable is the highly sensitive way in which Goldsmith deals with the most disturbing features of dementia, from seeking to understand challenging behaviour to issues surrounding dementia and sexuality. Similarly, the care with which Goldsmith explores the demands placed upon families is essential reading for all who seek to support those closest to people with dementia.

This section also gives an abundance of tips to facilitate effective communication and to make the very most of visits, and includes suggestions to enable people with dementia to continue to do as much as possible for as long as possible. These range from bringing together the most widely-recognised ways to prompt and sustain memory to the challenging checklist of Kitwood’s ‘malignant social psychology’, as a reminder of the ways in which it is all too easy to disable and undermine people with dementia.

Part three is devoted to the nature of ministry in the context of dementia. Goldsmith looks first at the questions most likely to be asked. Particularly helpful are the sections which ask ‘What will happen to my faith?’ on the journey into forgetfulness, and which consider the challenges to faith faced by carers. There is also a useful discussion of ‘spirituality’, ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ to assist in discerning the differing needs and expectations of those to whom we minister.

Goldsmith then provides suggestions to facilitate church attendance for people with dementia, and detailed, sensitive guidance for visiting and conducting worship at home and in institutional settings, in addition to advice on how to develop a relationship with local nursing homes. Three appendices offer further resources. As well as helping to equip and encourage ‘occasional’ ministry, Goldsmith gives particular acknowledgement to and encouragement for carers who seek to bring their faith to their day-to-day ministry.

Finally – and all too briefly – Goldsmith gives further scriptural and theological pointers to help us to discern the gospel in the situation of dementia, referring particularly to the Passion narratives, and returning to the theme of God’s presence in exile with which he began. Here, perhaps, is a place where readers might ask for more. We would undoubtedly be the richer for a more fully developed account of Goldsmith’s theological reflections arising from his research and experience.

Throughout, Goldsmith provides a wide range of resources, from summaries of recent work on dementia and dementia care to personal anecdotes, from the prayers with which each chapter closes to poetry and biographies. Goldsmith brings together a wealth of information, encouragement and practical advice not simply for churches and their leaders, but for all who are engaged in the care of people with dementia. In a Strange Land also offers family, friends and those beginning to come to terms with the onset of dementia a clear, honest and sympathetic resource to help with the questions to which a diagnosis of dementia gives rise. The riches in this volume serve to give all of us courage – people with dementia, families, carers, congregations and church leaders – in the realisation that there is indeed much we can do to ‘engage the mind, touch the heart, feed the soul’.

Suzanne McDonald (URC ordinand, University of St Andrews)

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