Our Father and my father

Written by Sandra Graham, MSN Research Associate

As I interview participants for this project and ponder their thoughts on prayer, it is hard not to think about prayer within my own personal context.   In fact, that is a very beneficial consequence of being a part of this research!

I have a father with dementia and following a severe stroke this past summer, the dementia is also now becoming severe.  My father has always been a person of strong faith, rarely missing a Sunday service. He could recite many of the prayers in the Anglican prayer book by memory, a gift in latter years as his ability to read became more difficult.  However, no prayer is more familiar to him than the Lord’s Prayer, understood to be the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples.

A respected bishop I knew said that when you don’t know what or how to pray, just say the Lord’s Prayer. He said it is extremely useful when you are lost and without purpose.  Doesn’t this sum up someone with dementia?   The Lord’s Prayer is short and simple with a nice flow to it.  Learned as a child, it doesn’t require much thought.  It is the only prayer that Dad is attentive to now. When I suggest saying this prayer with my father, I take his hands in mine.  He assumes an attitude of prayer, closes his eyes, attempts to mouth the words and knows to say “Amen” at the end.  It is beautiful in a way that I cannot describe.  No matter what his agitation level has been before, it works to calm him and allows us to communicate in a way we otherwise could not.

While my experience with The Lord’s Prayer is anecdotal, a recent study by Struve and colleagues (see reference below) seems to back me up.  The Lord’s Prayer, said twice/daily with late-stage dementia patients, resulted in a reduction of disruptive incidents.  Albeit it is a small sample, but the reduction in anti-psychotic medications is worth noting.

While I am talking here about the Lord’s Prayer in a Christian context, familiar and rote prayers exist in other religions and faiths and likely work the same way with elders.  How wonderful it is to have something that grounds them by being familiar and comforting, brings them a sense of peace, and allows families and caregivers to enter their world even if only for a few moments.

No matter how one defines prayer or how one explains its assistance with dementia, I feel it is a valuable tool in the dementia toolbox.  I hope this project will allow us to determine how others view and use prayer in their own healthcare toolboxes.

Struve, A. R., Lu, D. F., Hart, L. K., & Keller, T. (2015). The use of intercessory prayer to reduce disruptive behaviors of patients with dementia:  A pilot feasibility study. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 34(2), 135- 145.


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