COLUMBUS, Ohio – Perhaps it was the afternoon sun casting purple, blue and yellow hues through stained glass
Maybe it was the upbeat tunes from Rabbi Cary Kozberg’s guitar.
Whatever the inspiration, spirits were among worshippers at the Kabbalat Shabbat service tailored to residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia at the Wexner Heritage House long-term care center.
A man raised a hand and rocked to and fro in his wheelchair. One woman, her legs covered by a blue-and-white Star of David blanket, smiled as she sang along. Another tasted the challah and grape juice and joked, “I drink a little wine and I’m drunk!”
“Today was a good day,” Kozberg said after the service as he moved through the room addressing each worshipper by name, grabbing hands and patting shoulders.
Although some might argue that spiritual care is lost on people with dementia, Kozberg says just the opposite is true. After more than two decades working in the field, he insists: “People with dementia do not lose their spirituality. They do not lose it.”
In fact, he said, “a lot of times dementia takes the intellectual filter, and when it’s compromised, the spirit really comes out and people will become so much more human and alive.”
The rabbi directs spiritual-care efforts at the Wexner Heritage Village campus, which includes Heritage House. He began what he thought would be a one-year stint in 1989 and has since found that the position has given him a chance to be the kind of rabbi he wants to be – one who works with people who are disenfranchised. He has likened dementia patients to the tablets shattered by Moses – broken but still sacred.
“Even with the loss of memory and executive functioning and reasoning ability, people can still experience joy, they can still experience love, they can still experience respect, they can still relate to people,” he said.
A 2012 report by the Alzheimer’s Association estimated that 230,000 Ohioans age 65 or older had Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, in 2010 and that 250,000 will have the disease in 2025. Of the state’s roughly 191,000 nursing-home residents in 2009, 27 percent had very mild or mild cognitive impairment and 42 percent had moderate or severe impairment, the report says.
Kozberg’s work helps patients strengthen the ties they have to their former religious lives, said Nancy Pawliger, whose 104-year-old “vibrant, feisty” mother is a Heritage House resident. While her mother has not been diagnosed with dementia – she has “areas of confusion” – Pawlinger sees how the weekly songs and prayers take residents back to reassuring times from their lives.
She recalls Kozberg taking a Torah scroll to a seemingly unresponsive man on a stretcher and seeing the man light up “because someone accepted him as a person who was still alive.”
Heritage House is among a number of faith-based long-term care centers in central Ohio that address the spiritual needs of patients with dementia. Most use traditional music and Scripture to tap into residents’ long-term memories.
For example, at Westminster-Thurber Community, a Presbyterian center, chaplain Mark Arni uses colorful felt characters for Bible study and plays common hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” on the piano.
And at Mother Angeline McCrory Manor, a Catholic community, Sister Eileen Rosinski said Catholic residents often respond instinctively to hymns, recitation of the rosary or receiving the Eucharist – as well as nuns in traditional habits.
Outside such places, congregations are often more-focused on the needs of young families than on ministering to the elderly, Kozberg said. It’s important to “embrace our helplessness” and admit that we don’t yet have a solution for dementia, he said.
“Even though we can’t cure it, we can’t fix it, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. They have needs that all of us have, and they can be responded to.”