A possibility for intergenerational ministry?

In the comments of this post, Kevin, Joel, and I discussed the importance of intergenerational contact in churches. I thought about that when listening to an old Speaking of Faith episode about Alzheimer’s where a psychologist discussed a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s to help them pass on their memories. Although it doesn’t come from a Christian perspective, I think that it could be adapted by Christians who wanted to minister to the elderly in their churches and communities. Here are some excerpts, and you can follow the link above for the full audio or transcript:

Dr. Dienstag: Well, I was running this group, this support group, for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and I got a call from someone who ran the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and who told me that there was someone who wanted to speak with me about a writing group for people with Alzheimer’s disease. And I immediately thought it was a bad idea….

I didn’t see how it could work. I thought that it was going to be stressful for people too dependent on a kind of facility for writing, and I just didn’t think it was a good idea. I think I had blinders on. I think I was really kind of limiting — I was limited in that respect. And when I got on the phone with Don [DeLillo], I asked him what his idea was. And he said, “Writing is a form of memory, and perhaps it would be helpful for these people to have access to that form of memory as well.” And that really struck me, because I never thought about writing that way….

It really is different. And so that just got me thinking about, well, you know, if there are different forms of memory and we’re only using one of them in this way of working with these people, maybe that’s just too limited and maybe we ought to really open up our minds a little bit to this and what the possibilities are that are inherent in this. And in thinking back to that as well, I think it’s really important for those of us in health-related professions to talk to people who are outside the bubble, as it were….

I mean, there we were in the room and they would write and they would finish writing and they would read and then they would — I asked them to give me what they wrote every time we met, and I did that because I knew they’d lose it, or I was afraid they’d lose it. I thought there was certainly a good chance they’d lose it. So there was a kind of a practical anxiety that was behind that technique, if you will. But once that pattern got established, I saw that there was an enactment of something else going on there that was very profound and that was that they were turning their memories over to us and these were people who might come back next week and not remember what they had written. So it’s a very therapeutic activity in that respect as well. And it was comforting to them.



  1. That is neat and clever. Thanks for sharing, Scott.

    I was to a memorial recently where, a couple of years prior, a granddaughter took the initiative to discuss and transcribe some of her grandma’s memories — meaningful moments in her life. I’m sure it was appreciated at the time, but it was also a great blessing for us attending her memorial since we received such vivid, heartfelt, detailed, and even humorous insights into her being, in her own words. That is so hard to do after someone dies, as I’ve learned from my father’s death.

    As an aside on the topic of Alzheimer’s, I recently read that it is associated with the inability of neurons to use glucose for energy, causing the cells to gradually die off, but apparently our cells can also use ketones for energy which is derived from fatty acids (e.g. the MCT oil that is in coconuts). So, a ketogenic diet (depriving your body of glucose) may enable greater mental clarity and stave off degeneration.

  2. Interesting idea on intergenerational ministry. When I was a teenager, I would read stories to people in a locked up Alzheimer’s ward at the local nursing home. They can be difficult people to connect with. Many of those I dealt with didn’t seem capable of much writing, but perhaps I’m jumping to wrong conclusions based on their seeming disconnect from the world at large. Perhaps, if done from the early stages, such ability could be preserved even into later stages.

    I enjoyed reading the comments on integenerational ministry in the other post, though there seemed to be a backstory that made some of it more difficult to follow. My own experience of the Protestant world was one of extreme intergenerational disconnect. At most of the churches I grew up in and can remember, there were hardly any elderly people. The Calvary Chapel and independent/nondemoninational world of my youth seemed to be inhabited almost entirely by baby boomers and younger folks. I suspect that this was a result of the transition within Protestantism away from denominations toward non-demoninational congregations and suspect that many elderly people were ill at ease with the worship styles and theology-lite at those churches. There seemed to be more elderly in the Assembly of God world, but even that was quite limited. I suspect that the same is the case in many of the emerging groups, though I doubt that they will ever catch on the way non-denominationalism did. I wonder if some sort of equilibrium can be reached in the Protestant world where a decent percentage of congregations can have a healthy mix of young and old or whether the drive to cater to generations based on preferences in music, etc. will forever keep them apart? I suspect that the Jesus movement and the radical break from hymnody was far more divisive that current popular church trends. My guess is that as boomers age, churches in general will find ways to integrate the elderly into their congregations while still attracting the youth, and that intergenerational mixing on Sunday will increase as a result of this.

  3. Great points from both of you.

    Kevin, I know what you mean, having lost my dad too.

    Doug, that’s certainly something that some in the Protestant world have come to see, the segregation of generations even in churches that have multiple generations, let alone those that don’t. You’re probably right about the trends, and I would add the focus on youth ministry that’s “wild and crazy” and in some ways culturally captive, taking the standard set by the outside culture for young people and putting a Christian veneer on it.

    The people in the writing group tended to be in the early stages of the disease so that they could still do the project.

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