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Remembering Amidst Forgetting: 5 Tips for Leading Worship in Memory Care Residences

Jesus doesn’t forget those who are forgetting or have forgotten, nor those who are themselves forgotten, and neither should we. Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence shares five tips for leading worship in memory care residences.

Glo-o-o-o-o-ria, in excelsis deo, we sang, responding to Luke’s narrative of the angel army proclaiming the birth of Jesus.

“This is a favorite hymn of many,” I said, continuing the worship service in the activity room of a memory care unit of a local senior residence. “I hope we sing your favorite carol today.”

“Oh, I would love to sing ‘O Tannenbaum’,” exclaimed Anne from the couch about six feet from me. “That’s my favorite carol.”

I meditated about the fittingness of a song proclaiming the beauty of a Christmas tree in the midst of the nativity narrative. “I appreciate that song, too, Anne. We’ll sing it at the end of the service today,” I said, raising the inflection a bit at the end of the sentence as I looked at the pianist with a “Yes? You can play that?” question on my face.

Over the past year, I’ve been exploring worship leadership in contexts of forgetting. This includes ministry to people who are are forgetting or have forgotten, and to people who themselves are sometimes forgotten, as not all worship chaplaincy ministries are willing to lead worship services in senior memory care residences. I know why. It’s unpredictable. There are sometimes verbal outbursts or the other extreme, unresponsiveness. The hope for “full, conscious, and active” worship that I articulate within my own congregation is one I have to leave at the door of memory care units.

The hope I do have is built on the promise that God’s Spirit is with me and the residents, and that God will move in mysterious ways. And I have witnessed God at work, so this hope is not in vain.

But beyond that, here are a few tips I have learned for planning and leading worship in memory care units.

  1. Prepare a service bulletin. For each service, I select traditional hymns and re-type the lyrics in large font (24-28). If the hymn is too long to fit on a single page, rather than using 2 pages, select the verses you most prefer and fit them onto the same page. Turning pages can be challenging for many residents and you don’t want to present this challenge in the middle of a favorite song.

In the songbook, use different page colors to differentiate the songs and put them in the order in which you’ll sing them. Include any scripture, creeds, or liturgies you’ll be using.

Select well-known hymns. As you get to know residents in different contexts, you’ll learn more about their denominational background. This will help you select the material they know. The music background for Catholics and Baptists is very different, but there is some overlap. Greatest hits I’ve found include “Amazing Grace,” “The Lily of the Valley,” and “In the Garden.” The ministry I serve with utilizes Sonshine: Songs and Scripture (a large-print piano and leader book) as a primary source for hymns and songs and accompaniment.

  1. Invite a friend to help. I frequently invite a friend from church to join me and help by sitting with the residents and turning their pages in the songbooks. This seems like a very small way to help, but the service runs much more smoothly. Additionally, for new believers, this is a good way to begin serving while continue learning about God’s Story. (Side note: this is also a good way to include some of your church’s youth.)

  2. Be flexible, especially in planning the preaching. Be ready to change your plan at a moment’s notice. This is for all of the worship service, but specifically preaching.

While my preaching training involves manuscript 4-page sermons, I have found that children’s picture books (including The Jesus Storybook Bible) capture the attention of the residents more than any erudite sermon I may write myself. For one service, I invited a friend to walk around, showing the pictures to the residents, while I read the words I had typed out separately. 

If you do decide to write a message yourself, preach from notes (not a manuscript) and encourage a dialogical type of preaching to engage the residents. Consider multiple “exit ramps” for your conclusion as you preach so that you can finish at God’s appointed time by listening to the Spirit and watching the residents.

  1. Engage with music differently. Some residents may no longer be able to speak or sing but will want to engage with their bodies. You can facilitate participation by passing out small rhythm instruments. Instruments that are 1-piece such as bells or maracas are easiest to use, rather than claves or the triangle. You can also make up simple hand motions or playfully clap. Some residents will mirror your action.

  2. Laugh and smile. This is where the joy of the Lord is necessary. Despite the heaviness of illness, loss, and grief, God provides moments of laughter and delight.

Once, when asking for prayer requests, a woman said, “Oh, pray that God gives me skin like yours. You have beautiful skin.” I couldn’t help but smile. (Thank you, God, for my skin.)

Another time, when introducing a message on 1 Kings 19, I said, “Do you ever feel lonely? Do you ever feel like you’re alone in the world?” One resident in the front row replied, “No. I love it here. I have so many friends. I’m so thankful for my friends. I’m never ever lonely.” (Off-ramp needed after the introduction for that sermon!)

And then, in December, after we heard the nativity story, it was time for Anne’s favorite carol. She sang “O Tannenbaum” in Hungarian, as joyfully as she sings any other hymn or participates in the communion liturgy.

Her song reminded me of another tree, one with only two branches, and the One upon it who said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Yes, trouble. There’s a lot of trouble when we forget and are forgotten. But take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.

And so let us respond as do many of our residents when they hear the phrase “The Word of the Lord” with a hearty “Thanks be to God”. 

Digging Deeper:

© 2005 by Holland Home, Grand Rapids, MI. Made possible by a Worship Renewal Grant with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc. and available through our ministry partner The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.