On Tuesday afternoons, Linda Abel and Bill Schahn can be found leading services inside the small worship room at Christian Care Communities and Services on the eastside of Fort Worth. 

Schahn’s fingers dance across the piano keys as melody spills out into the room. His voice joins in with Abel’s as they routinely sing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Abel also guides the service through The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.

Abel carefully follows the same lineup because she’s found such repetition makes the service accessible to those living with dementia. Abel, president emeritus of Dementia Friendly Fort Worth, created the organization’s Dementia Friendly Chapel Toolkit in 2018. 

The driving forces behind the toolkit come from Abel’s 20-year experience as a registered nurse in assisted living communities and her late husband, a retired United Methodist minister. The toolkit was created as a resource to help churches address the spiritual needs of people living with dementia as well as their caregivers. 

“This is good for anybody. If you love old hymns, this is for you. If you have a loved one with dementia, this is for you,” Abel said. 

What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term that describes several different diseases involving the deterioration of the brain, Dr. Tyson Garfield, a geriatrician and assistant professor at The University of North Texas Health Science Center, previously told the Fort Worth Report. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. 

Tarrant County leads the state in Alzheimer’s case numbers, with 23% of recipients living within the county, according to findings from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The number of individuals with Alzheimer’s 65 and older is expected to increase. By 2025 the Alzheimer’s Association is expecting the number of cases to grow to 490,000 people — a 22.5% jump since 2021. 

Abel said she wanted the toolkit to include specific instructions to help people who live with dementia feel comfortable during worship, such as using a small gathering space and larger fonts for more readable handouts. Abel also repeats the first of the hymn during service rather than singing the second verse because it’s easier to remember, she said. The toolkit also provides structures for how to organize a service, hymnals and sheet music. 

Dementia Friendly Fort Worth is a nonprofit ministry associated with the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, which started hosting its dementia-friendly worship service in September 2018. The service moved to Christian Care Communities and Services’ Fort Worth branch in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, because that’s where Abel lived at the time. The services were recorded on Tuesday afternoons and aired on Christian Care’s televisions. On Sundays and Wednesdays, the services are aired as a live stream through the church’s website

Dementia Friendly Fort Worth stopped recording new services in June 2023 because of a staffing shortage, said Gail Snider, executive director of the nonprofit. Recordings from the previous services are published on the organization’s Facebook page and the church’s YouTube account. 

Schahn participated in the chapel service once it moved to his senior living facility. As a retired music teacher, he said, he loves seeing how people attending the worship service get excited about the music he plays. It also reignites the joys of his craft along with his faith, Schahn said. 

“They’d raise up their heads and then their eyes would come alive,” Schahn said. “That always made me feel so needed.” 

The toolkit is free to download on the Dementia Friendly Fort Worth website. Snider hopes that churches will use the resource to bring dementia-friendly services to their congregations. 

“Although people with dementia may not be able to absorb a sermon or sit through an entire service, they still need the opportunity to worship and express themselves spiritually,” Snider said. “Memories, music, rhythm and scripture are things that the brain holds onto until the very end so people with dementia thrive in these settings. Churches can provide a vital ministry to people with dementia and their families by offering a dementia-friendly service.”

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter at @marissaygreene

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Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member and covers faith in Tarrant County for the Fort Worth Report. Greene got her start in journalism at Austin Community College, where she spearheaded the...