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Photo of Rochelle Graham by David A. Graham


‘The body has dementia, but the soul doesn’t.’

By Donald Grayston

Rochelle Graham is a physiotherapist living in Sidney, B.C., a recent Vancouver School of Theology graduate and a candidate for ordination in the United Church. In 1998, she founded the Healing Pathway, a program that reclaims the ministry of healing for the church and is now found in more than 100 United Church congregations. 

On the spiritual roots of the Healing Pathway: When I taught my first course on healing, at B.C.’s Naramata Centre, the course participants kept challenging me to connect what I was doing with our faith. As we kept on asking, “What does it mean to carry on the healing mission of Jesus?” the work evolved. When I invited the participants to ask God to work through their hands, it was as though someone had turned on 100 light bulbs in the room.

On her interest in dementia: Working as a physiotherapist for many years in acute care and residential care, I met many frail elderly [people], some of them on the cusp of dementia. I soon recognized that for the most part, the church was not meeting their spiritual needs. Working with them has become my passion and my greatest joy in life — that and my grandchildren!

On attitudes toward dementia: Fear of dementia is the greatest fear of the elderly; they are less afraid of actually dying. The medical model of response primarily sees the disability. But if I focus on your ability, I empower you. And if I look for God in the person with dementia, I can reach in deeply, connect and see the light. When I look at persons with dementia, I want to see them with the eyes of God.

On the church’s response: We have so much to offer through the church. But I have to say that there is plenty of room for growth in the church’s response. When I told the B.C. Conference examiners who were considering me as a candidate for ordination that in my ministry I wanted to focus on persons with dementia, I realized from their response that this was not the typical focus in congregations, most of which focus on survival, on just keeping the doors open. We hire youth ministers; why not ministers for the elderly? It’s the elderly, after all, who very largely fund the church’s ability to keep those doors open. 

On dementia and public health care: It’s not a priority for government funding. Many health-care workers experience the work as a calling, but they aren’t supported by the system. There is little education for health-care workers and community volunteers to help them see the person beyond the diagnosis. The church has a role to play here.

On spiritual care for those with dementia: Everyone’s spirituality is unique. I ask people what makes them feel most alive — music, animals, nature, religious practice — whatever helps them experience God’s grace. Whatever the answer, that is what connects them with strong, positive emotions: joy, peacefulness, connectedness. When we know what that is for someone, we can find ways to connect with them pastorally. The body has dementia, but the soul doesn’t.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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