Discovery to recovery: Godly Play for Alzheimer’s patients (continued)
Discovery to recovery: Godly Play for Alzheimer’s patients (continued)


Editor’s Note: Today we continue to look at a very special Godly Play ministry in the Diocese of Lexington. The Rev. Lois Howard discusses the challenges of Godly Play ministry with Alzheimer’s patients, thoughts on starting a ministry, adaptations for the parish setting, and how to structure Godly Play for this particular group. Read part one of the article here.

The Time: Now.

The Place: Wherever there are folks who need a friend—and who might otherwise be invisible.

Miss Amy sits by the door with her purse over her arm. She is waiting, oh so patiently, to go home. Each day, she sits waiting for someone to take her. She has been waiting at the same place every day for five years.

The reality is that no one will be coming to take her home, but perhaps you would be willing to go sit beside Miss Amy someday to tell her a Godly Play story and to listen to her own story.  It will be enriching for both Miss Amy and for you.

Another reality is that when a church family has a loved one who becomes disruptive so that they can no longer bring that person to a regular Sunday worship service, that person disappears. He or she may not feel comfortable attending worship anymore.

It’s easy to become cut off from the church community in this way—at the time when Alzheimer’s patients most need the love and support of members. If a nursing home ministry does not feel like something you can be involved in, perhaps your church could provide a once-per-month time of Godly Play with persons from the congregation who suffer from this disease.

Over the years, I have told many of the Godly Play stories in Volumes 2, 3, and 4, plus a few from Young Children and Worship. Recently I have added several saints’ stories. I use a rotation of twelve stories which seem to create more response than others. I then add the seasonal stories at appropriate times.

I only use two parables, because they seem to be too ambiguous for these folks. I have included below the twelve stories I use, as well as adaptations I have made. The wondering questions, as used in Godly Play, do not work. I have also included some that are more specific to the stories and which allow for more sharing.

The remainder of this article takes the form of advice, resources, and suggested procedures. But before I close this narrative, allow me one last question. A challenge has surfaced which I present to all who might be working primarily with children. If it is true that those things which we lose last from our memories are the rituals we learned as children, then what rituals are we giving our children today?


Starting a ministry

Establishing limits

  1.  Look for a facility or program which involves folks afflicted with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease. Consult a local Alzheimer’s Association for information.
  2. Visit the facility and talk with the administrator and the activities’ director.
  3. Explain what you want to do and the purpose: You wish to provide a worship experience for these folks that will allow them to feel whole in the midst of their brokenness. This would involve telling a Bible story using Godly Play techniques, playing a hymn/song bingo game, and then singing.
  4. Suggest having a small group sit at a table—no more than five or six of the most highly functioning folks.
  5. Ask to do a demonstration with the administrator and activities’ director present, so they can experience what it is you want to do.
  6. Have name tags for both the participants and the team members.
  7. Develop a team of three or four people to accompany the storyteller.
  8. Limit your stay to between forty-five and sixty minutes.

 Purposes of this ministry

  1. To be a loving, accepting presence to often-forgotten people.
  2. To provide a worshipful experience of Bible stories and music.
  3. To ask questions that may encourage the participants to remember incidents and people from their earlier years.
  4. To encourage some kind of response to the story—though it won’t necessarily be a verbal response.
  5. To possibly bring back people’s memories and feelings, no matter how short their memory, by using words they can connect with.


Alternate ideas for ministry in the parish setting

  1. If you feel that God is calling you to this kind of ministry, schedule a time to speak with your rector or other parish leader to learn if there are families in the parish affected by this disease. More and more families are keeping their loved ones at home until the disease progresses to the point where they can no longer care for them.
  2. If you have such a person in the parish, ask if you could meet with the family to tell them what you would like to do. Suggest that the family bring the person to the church one Saturday morning a month for a Bible story and some music. That would give the family a small break and the surroundings of the church would be familiar to the person involved.
  3. Try to find three or four persons in the parish who would team up with you to do this ministry.  If possible, find someone with a musical background to help with the music.  If this is not possible, tape recorded music can be used.
  4. As a team of three or four people, learn as much about dementia/Alzheimer’s disease as you can, to familiarize yourself with behaviors that may be exhibited and how best to communicate. Read and get some training, if possible, before venturing into these unknown waters.
  5. As your team gathers, have each person in the group learn to tell a story. Although it is preferable to use the Godly Play technique of storytelling, it is possible simply to tell a Bible story from your heart, using figures or objects which people can see to illustrate the story.  Involve as many of the senses as possible. Practice with each other.
  6. When you and the family are ready, bring the person or persons to the church and work with them, perhaps having the family stay the first time.
  7. Talk with the person before starting the story to get acquainted and then begin the story. After the story, try singing a few hymns with the words provided, which have been enlarged and placed in a booklet for them.
  8. End your time by saying the Lord’s Prayer together.
  9. Thank the individual and the family for coming.

This kind of approach would keep the family in contact with their home church and the familiarity of the surroundings and the people on the team would be extremely beneficial. The family would be grateful for the continued connection between them and the community of faith. If this program works, you might consider inviting the family to do this two Saturdays a month instead of just once.


Structuring Godly Play for Alzheimer’s patients

Stories that we tell on a regular rotation

  1. Creation
  2. The Fall
  3. The Great Flood
  4. The Great Family – Abram and Sarai
  5. The Exodus
  6. Jonah and the Whale
  7. The Parable of the Good Shepherd
  8. The Parable of the Good Samaritan
  9. The Good Shepherd and World Communion
  10. Jesus and the Children  (from Young Children and Worship)
  11. Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus  (from Young Children and Worship)
  12. Zacchaeus  (from Young Children and Worship)
  13. A floor-size puzzle of Jesus’s life

Seasonal Stories

  1. Advent/Christmas
  2. The Holy Family
  3. The Mystery of Easter Puzzle
  4. St. Valentine – February
  5. St. Patrick – March
  6. St. Francis – October
  7. St. Nicholas – December
  8. Palm Sunday – Jesus is King (from Young Children and Worship)
  9. Easter Eggs
  10. Jesus Is Risen – Mary Magdalene  (from Young Children and Worship)
  11. Jesus is Risen – The Road to Emmaus  (from Young Children and Worship)

Adaptations I have made to these stories

  1. Three-dimensional figures are easier to see than the two-dimensional figures usually used in the parables. Two-dimensional figures are designed to lie flat, and this makes it more difficult for the folks sitting at the table to see them. I use the sheepfold, the sheep, and the Good Shepherd from the “Good Shepherd and World Communion” story.
  2. For the desert box stories, I sometimes sit on the floor rather than at the table so the folks are looking down from couches onto the sand.
  3. Be sure to use wooden figures of contrasting colors, especially in the sand, so they can distinguish them from the color of the sand.
  4. Use very simple, short sentences. Speak louder than usual and very slowly.
  5. Try to involve as many of their senses in the stories as you can.
  6. Make occasional eye contact. Look for any sign that there may be recognition in the story—such as a glimmer in their eyes.
  7. I tried telling “The Deep Well” in hopes of hearing stories from them about having to draw water from a well when they were younger.  On occasion there has been a memory, but not often.
  8. I have learned not to expect responses to these stories. Occasionally the team members are able to ask questions of the participants that may trigger responses.
  9. If participants interrupt during the story, acknowledge their comments but try to continue with the story. This is not always easy to do.


Procedure used at The Breckinridge

  1. The group gathers outside at 10:30 each Monday morning and enters the residence together.
  2. We meet, greet, and gather four to six people together and seat them at a large rectangular dining room-type table.
  3. The Storyteller usually sits in the center of the group. Occasionally the Storyteller will sit on the floor when the desert box in used.
  4. Our time together begins by all singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
  5. The Storyteller tells the story for the day using three-dimensional figures.
    1. Movements of the figures are slow and deliberate.
    2. Words and phrases are kept simple.
    3. The Storyteller makes occasional eye contact (see above).
    4. Simple questions are asked by the Storyteller following the story.
    5. The Godly Play “wondering questions” are omitted (too vague). Tactile questions work better:
      1. Have you ever walked on the beach?
      2. Have you ever felt the sand of the beach between your toes?
      3. Have you even been a helper or a Good Samaritan to someone?
      4. What is your favorite animal?
      5. What animal would you take on the ark?
      6. If Jesus came today and asked you to eat lunch, what would you fix?
      7. If you had a chance to talk with Jesus, what would you talk about?
  6. After story time, we play a Bingo game with them. The cards they use are very large (12″ x 12″) with nine designated spaces. Brightly colored foam disks are given to each person.  One game uses hymns and the Storyteller says the name of a hymn, leaving out the last word in the hymn (e.g., “I Love to Tell the ___________”).  Each card is exactly alike so that everyone wins every game.  A second game is played sometimes which uses secular songs that we will sing later.
  7. Following the game, we move to chairs near a piano for singing.
    1. We sing old gospel hymns—many folks know the words for every gospel song ever written.  Provide a notebook containing all of the words in large print. We have about forty songs in the booklets.
    2. We sing old secular songs: “Ain’t She Sweet,”  “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
    3. We end our time together by singing “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” and by  affirming their presence and tell them how much their presence means to each one of us.
  8. We say the Lord’s Prayer together in closing.
  9. We reassure them that we will be back next week—same time but different story. Lots of hugs are given to all.

Ministry to Alzheimer’s patients is a ministry of presence. We have no specific goals when we enter except to be “with” them and to love them and make them feel important and valued.  It is big, important work.

More Resources

Bell, Virginia & Troxell, David. A Dignified Life: The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 2002.

Berryman, Jerome. The Complete Guide to Godly Play:  Volume  2.  Denver, Colorado:  Living the Good News, 2002.

Berryman, Jerome. The Complete Guide to Godly Play:  Volume 3.  Denver, Colorado:  Living the Good News, 2002.

Berryman, Jerome. The Complete Guide to Godly Play: Volume 4.  Denver, Colorado: Living the Good News, 2003.

Berryman, Jerome. The Complete Guide to Godly Play: Volume 7. Denver, ColoradoMorehouse Education Resources, 2008.

Goldsmith, Malcolm. In A Strange Land: People With Dementia and the Local Church. Southwell and Edinburgh, Scotland: 4 M Publications, 2004.

Otwell, Pat. Guide to Ministering to Alzheimer’s Patients and Their Families. NewYork: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2007.

Pearce, Nancy. Inside Alzheimer’s: How to Hear and Honor Connections with a Person Who Has Dementia. Taylors, South Carolina: Forrason Press, 2007.

Snowden, David. Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.

Thibault, Jane Marie. A Deepening Love Affair: The Gift of God in Later Life.  Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2007.

Thibault, Jane Marie and Morgan, Richard L.  No Act of Love is Ever Wasted: The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2009.

Van den Abeele, Veronique. Still My Grandma. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.

The Rev. Lois Howard resides in the Diocese of Lexington and has been actively teaching Godly Play for more than twenty-five years.

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