Discovery to recovery: Godly Play for Alzheimer’s patients
Discovery to recovery: Godly Play for Alzheimer’s patients

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Editor’s Note: Over the next two days we will explore an important ministry taking place within the Diocese of Lexington. As most of our readers know, Godly Play has traditionally been taught to young children. Deacon Lois Howard has introduced the program to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

In this post, she captures a few snapshots that inform her current ministry, and she describes how it began. In the second part, she will share some challenges and discuss how to start a similar ministry, including in a parish setting. 

The Time: 1988.

The Place: A Godly Play classroom for three-year-old children at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas.

Mr. Jim, the Storyteller for the morning, while sitting in the circle as the Feast is going on, holds up the tiny wooden figure of the Christ Child (from the Holy Family) and says to the children, “I wonder who this could be.”

A little blonde girl blurts out,  “Oh, that’s the baby Jesus. He got his arms open to hug me.” Then, Mr. Jim holds up the Risen Christ figure and says: “I wonder who this could be.” A child across the circle answers:  “Oh, that’s the Risen Christ.  He got his arms open to hug the whole world.”

I sat there, astounded at the responses of these three-year-old children. Discovery.

The Time: 2000.

The Place: A four-year-old Godly Play classroom at Danville Presbyterian Church in Danville, Kentucky.

It was my first Sunday at Danville Presbyterian Church as the Minister of Christian Formation, and Godly Play was new to them. I was scheduled to tell the story of the Good Shepherd. Not a sound was made during the story.

Just before I dismissed the children, eager to know what they had heard, I said,  “If your parents ask you what the story was about this morning, I wonder what you will tell them.” One of the boys immediately said: “Oh, it was about Jesus.”

I was taken aback at his response. Had I slipped and mentioned Jesus in the story? Suddenly, another child said, “No, it was about the Good Shepherd.” Very quietly, the first child looked at him and said, “Jesus is the Good Shepherd! Don’t you get it?”

Wow! As I pondered this small exchange between the two boys, I thought that perhaps the parents of the first child had told him the story of the Good Shepherd previously.  That afternoon, curious to know whether the child had been told the story before, I called his parents.  They had never told the child this story! What an incredible example of the fact that Godly Play is an experience in which people who hear the stories make discoveries, on their own, which deepen their faith and their relationship to Christ. Discovery.

The Time: 2003.

The Place: Danville Presbyterian Church.

It was my last Sunday to be at the Danville Presbyterian Church. Godly Play had grown into three wonderful classrooms, but the fifth graders had not been exposed to the program. There were mostly boys in the class, but I wanted them to hear at least one Godly Play story before I left.

I must admit that, as they entered the room to sit in a circle, I was a bit apprehensive about this whole experience. In the class there was a very special young man who was autistic, severely autistic.

In his public school classroom, he would sometimes sit in a large refrigerator box when his behavior was disruptive. This child was one of the most loving children I have ever met and I especially wanted to see how he would experience the story.

I explained how we sit—on our bottoms with legs crossed and hands on our knees. All were ready.

“This is a desert box,” I began, and so I told the story of the Great Family. There was total silence for the entire story. The story ended, and as I looked up, ready to ask the wondering questions, I was astounded to find B, lying on his stomach, right next to the desert box, his head resting on his hands and his eyes riveted on the sand.

How would these children respond to the wondering questions? Much to my surprise, when I asked what part of the story was about them or where they were in the story, B pounded the floor with his fist and blurted out: “Miss Lois, Abraham is my father, too. I am part of his great family!”

My eyes filled with tears. This child got itDiscovery.

The Time:  2007.

The Place:  The Best Friends’ Day Center for folks who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Folks who suffer from dementia gather each day for activities while their family members work or get some respite from their care-giving responsibilities. Each Alzheimer’s person is assigned a volunteer who will be his/her Best Friend for the day. I had never seen or met any of these folks, but I had been invited to spend time with them, telling them a Godly Play story.

After sharing with them the story of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus), one of the men approached me and said,  “You know what? Our family used to have some of those little figures: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds. My mother used to get them out every year at Christmastime.  She would put them under the tree and each day she would tell us the story over and over.”

Then he paused before touching his chest and looking at me to say, “I know that story. I know that story and it is right here, in my heart.”

I will never forget that moment. As I watched the smile cover his face, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. Recovery of a memory.

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The Time: Any Monday morning since 2007, 10:30 a.m.

The Place:  The Breckinridge, a residence for twenty-four Alzheimer’s patients in Lexington, Kentucky.

A team of seven women, representing three denominations, rings the doorbell, and we are welcomed into the home. One of the residents greets us:  “Here comes the Word of the Lord!” What an incredible greeting!

A second woman looks at us and announces, as she gives each one of us a hug, “It must be Monday morning. You God people always come on Mondays.” Staff members are sometimes shocked that she remembers that.

We gather six or seven of the most highly functioning folks and sit around a dining room table for the Godly Play story. We begin by singing, “Jesus loves me.” The story begins.

I tell the story of the Exile and Return.  As I drop the heavy chain in the sand, a retired Church of God minister says, “When I was a boy, we used to put chains like that on our tires on the cars in the wintertime. Once, my car slid into a ditch and we had to call a tow truck. They used that same kind of a chain to pull my car out of the ditch.”

Recovery of a memory—right in the middle of a Godly Play story.

It is not unusual for us to talk briefly after the weekly story and hear other memories tumble out, memories of their childhood. There is something about the way in which these stories, using the three dimensional figures, seems to trigger the memories of the people hearing them.

After the story and sharing, we play a Bingo game using hymn titles in which the residents have to finish the title I mention, e.g., “What a friend we have in ____” or “I Love to Tell the ______.”  It is amazing how quickly some of them respond when they hear just the beginning of the title.

Following the game, we move everyone close to the piano where we sing some of these old, old hymns.  The amazing thing to me is that these folks, some of whom can no longer speak, are still able to sing. The disease may affect the center of the brain, which allows them to speak, but a different part of the brain is used for singing. They LOVE to sing.

Recently, I was sitting at the piano to lead the singing. I turned my head to see if all of the group were singing. What I saw brought tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.

A group of folks who had not been included in our small storytelling circle were singing along with us. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the kitchen helpers come out of the kitchen and kneel at one of the tables where a woman who can no longer speak or read was sitting, eating her breakfast.

The kitchen helper began stroking the woman’s hair in a very loving way.  Then they began singing together—the helper and the one who might otherwise have been invisible.  “Jesus loves me, this I know . . .”

After singing for thirty minutes, we close our time together by saying The Lord’s Prayer. And, yes, everyone knows every word of it.  We say our goodbyes, and I go over to the kitchen helper to thank her for joining the woman and for singing with her.  She looks at me and says: “I love these people, and I love the Lord. So that is the least I can do, to be with her and share those songs.”

As our small group was leaving the Breckinridge recently, the administrator came outside and was talking with us about what we do with the residents.

“I don’t know what you all are doing with these folks, but whatever it is, it is reaching them at a very deep spiritual level,” she said.

I have thought a lot about her comment.  What is it about this ministry that is reaching these folks?

I believe it is our willingness to sit and be with them: to listen when they speak, to touch and hug them, to sing with them, to accept and love them just where they are! This is truly a ministry of presence.

Godly Play Lois Howard

How this ministry began

The Time:  November 2006.

The Place:  Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, Florida.

While visiting my 99-year-old mother, I attended a Sunday morning worship service with her. The text for the sermon was Luke 14:19–31. It was the story of the poor man, Lazarus, who was so poor that he sat in the streets and ate the scraps that fell to him. Only the dogs come to him and they lick his sores.

It’s not a pretty story. In fact, it is a gross story, not only because Lazarus was poor and full of sores but because he was invisible to the people around him, especially to the rich man, who never even noticed him.

The chaplain, the Rev. LaDonna Scruggs, posed a question at the end of her sermon, a Godly Play-type question:

“I wonder who are the invisible people in our culture today?” She mentioned street people, the homeless, those with no job or income.

Then, after pausing briefly, she said, “Maybe some of us become invisible, those of us who have a disease that takes away our memory or disease that takes away our ability to walk or to read or to even feed ourselves. We would certainly be invisible to the majority in our culture today.”

Later that same day, the chaplain, having seen some Godly Play stories presented to children, told me that she felt confident that some of her Alzheimer’s residents at the Home would be responsive to experiencing Godly Play stories. She then asked me to tell a story or two the next day to some of these folks.

I admit that I was apprehensive, afraid, and hesitant, but I did tell the Good Shepherd and was astounded and amazed at their response to the story. One woman began singing “Jesus Like a Shepherd Lead Us…”

Following the story, she asked me to play some old Gospel hymns on the piano. Not only did they all sing, but a tiny, 95-year-old woman, seated in her wheelchair away from the group in a dark corner (nearly invisible), astounded all present in the room.

She had not spoken a word in weeks. I began playing “Just as I am without one plea.” Suddenly, from this nearly invisible woman came a loudly spoken “ALTAR CALL!”  Amazing.

The chaplain, smiling as the tears rained down her cheeks, explained that this woman had been a missionary for many years in Africa. Hearing the notes of the hymn, she re-membered (recovered). The music brought back memories of her time there.

I could not get these experiences out of my head. I told stories to these folks several times before coming home. The Chaplain had also shared with me a term that she coined: ritual memory.  She is convinced that the last things  we lose mentally are those rituals we learned as children.

When I returned home to Lexington, I made an appointment with our bishop to talk about beginning a new diaconal ministry, a ministry to Alzheimer’s patients using Godly Play. For 25 years, I had worked in the Diocese of Lexington as a minister of Christian formation, primarily for children. This was to be a huge change for me.

I immediately contacted Jerome Berryman, creator of Godly Play, to share my Florida experiences. He was excited and encouraged me to find locations for doing this ministry.

My exploration led me to three places. The first was the Best Friends’ Day Center, which met at Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington.  The second was the residence for twenty-four Alzheimers’ patients known as The Breckinridge.  That was recommended to me by people at the Sanders Brown Center for Aging, a part of The University of Kentucky.  The third location was back at Second Presbyterian Church where, across the hall from Best Friends, were sixteen preschoolers attending the Ecumenical Preschool that I co-founded twenty-four years ago, a joint venture between Second Presbyterian Church and Christ Church Cathedral.

This last site was great fun, because every Wednesday morning during the school year, I would bring the children into the room with the Alzheimer’s folks.  They would march in and sit at the feet of these “Grandmas” and “Grandpas” for a Godly Play story.  We would wonder together after the story and then we would sing together.  Finally, the children would give hugs to all of the “Grandmas” and “Grandpas.”

This was the highlight of the week for both the children and the older adults. For some of the Alzheimer’s folks, it was the only time during the week that they smiled.

In all three of these locations, I do use some specific questions following the stories. But once again, the most important element in this ministry is our presence to them. Someone said to me recently, “You are providing an opportunity for these folks to experience wholeness in the midst of their brokenness.”

Read the rest of this article here.

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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2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Lois Howard. I write this message through tears in my eyes at the beauty of what you are doing and the grace of the people who receive the stories – old and young. As someone who has family members affected by this terrible disease, I am thankful that you see the “invisible” ones. I love the mingling of little children with elders. And I wonder what memories our children are gathering, and what is being planted so deeply that it will come back to them when they need it? Discovery. Recovery. Thanks be to God.

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