When Words Fail, Faith Speaks: Finding Light in Dementia’s Shadow

‘It was a spiritual memory that cannot be described in any other form of memory. She never forgot her prayers, her faith nor the people that formed her...’

Kate Fassbender poses with her grandmother, Marie Fassbender, during a family baby shower a year and a half after her diagnosis with vascular dementia.
Kate Fassbender poses with her grandmother, Marie Fassbender, during a family baby shower a year and a half after her diagnosis with vascular dementia. (photo: Kate Fassbender / Kate Fassbender)

Kate Fassbender vividly remembers her last visit with her grandmother who was living in the middle stages of Vascular Dementia. While she never lost her ability to recognize family, this day, only two weeks before she died, the conversation lasted much longer than normal. Over the two hours it was clear that her grandmother Marie Fassbender was in the depths of her dementia journey with some forgetfulness and a body with shoulders rounding inwards, that was until the conversation shifted to Kate’s work as a Eucharistic minister.  

“She sat up a bit straighter, the tone of her voice a bit stronger, and I was able to see the grandma I knew as a young girl,” Fassbender recalled to the Register. 

Witnessing these moments of clarity are a common experience for those who work with the aged and infirm — a beautiful phenomenon on display recently on social media: a clip of an elderly woman who couldn’t remember what she had for lunch but knew that she was going home soon to see Jesus; in another moving video, an old man sang all the words to Panis Angelicus, even though he doesn’t remember his daughter.  

Chaplains have detailed first-hand accounts of patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, or are otherwise non-verbal, who experience what Tim Serban at Providence St. Joseph Health in Portland, Oregon, called “little awakenings,” he told the Register. 

“Moments when there was no prior indication of their ability to communicate, when they either joined in when a chaplain began praying the Lord’s Prayer or when it was known that the Rosary had been important to them, the person would begin praying the Hail Mary or Our Father out loud,” especially among religious sisters and priests. 

Carmelite Sister M. Peter Lillian Di Maria of the Avila Institute of Gerontology (AIG), in Germantown, New York, who has served the most vulnerable for more than 45 years, is quick to emphasize that this phenomenon happens regularly, how our brains are actually wired to remember religious rituals, and how it has now become part of the craft in caring, to help soothe minds that are experiencing different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.  

“When working with residents who have dementia who may not be able to communicate verbally, I have seen them bless themselves and be attentive to receiving the Eucharist, or even at liturgy,” Sister Peter recalled to the Register. A local deacon she works with who offers Communion to nursing-home residents told her “residents will often appear dull and inexpressive, but when he approaches them with the Eucharist, the light returns to their eyes, and they become responsive and receptive.” 

And it happens even more during communal prayers, something very unique to the Catholic faith in particular, which she has witnessed. “I’ve heard residents say the Our Father and/or the Hail Mary. They are able to sing hymns, especially songs of faith from their childhood.” 

Serban, who serves as system executive director of spiritual health for Providence, recalled one religious sister whose behavior was often disruptive. “However, once Mass began, she settled in and responded to the prayers with the rest of the congregation. When it came time to receive Holy Communion, she responded and received with deep reverence and calm.” 

For those who are non-verbal and disconnected in a social way due to their memory, Serban said, patients “unexpectedly and intentionally emerge and have moments where they were absolutely clear as they prayed a familiar prayer. Most frequent are those who respond to the Lord’s Prayer, next Hail Mary, and, very often, know the prayers to receive Holy Communion and respond verbally, such as, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Or ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’” 


Uniquely and Perfectly Made 

The journey through that individuals and families experience is filled with trials and changes in dreams for the future as plans are disrupted by memory loss. By continuing to practice the faith, that suffering is eased. 

Sister Peter turned to science to explain how God’s unique design of the mind allows it to hold onto prayer, religion and rituals learned by heart even when minds fail.  

Alfred Norwood, MBA, BS, faculty at AIG, points to five ways to maintain a spiritual connection:  

Emotional Connection: Religious experiences and practices often carry significant emotional weight. Emotional (episodic) memories tend to be more resilient. They endure and are less likely to deteriorate quickly, compared to neutral memories. 
Repetition and Routine: Religious practices, such as prayers, hymns and rituals are frequently repeated. This repetition reinforces procedural memory and makes these memories more resistant to the effects of Alzheimer’s and other types of memory loss. 
Early Acquisition: Many religious memories are formed in childhood or early adulthood, a time when memory encoding is generally stronger. These early memories are often well-preserved in dementia patients, as the disease typically affects newer memories first. 
Cultural Integration: Religious beliefs and practices are deeply embedded in a person’s cultural and social identity. This deep integration makes such memories more robust and harder to erase. 
Different Brain Regions: Religious and spiritual experiences might involve brain regions that are less affected by cognitive disease, especially in the earlier stages. For instance, the limbic system, which is associated with emotions and long-term memory, might help in preserving these memories longer. 

By helping patients or family members to live out past religious practices with an integrated daily schedule, “both the person with dementia and their caregiver might extend periods of lucidity and maintain maximum independence and social integration,” Sister Peter said.  

Alfred affirms, “Research indicates that religion, especially religions offering childhood training, maintained daily set rituals [for the faithful], and retaining simple but repetitious practices creates a framework for understanding life's challenges, even during periods of confusion. Religious communities often offer social support and connection, which is crucial for mental well-being. Religious practices can provide a sense of routine and familiarity, which can be calming for someone experiencing memory loss. Religious faith can offer comfort and hope in the face of a difficult diagnosis and uncertain future.” 

Fassbender’s experience with her grandmother reflects these findings, as the sacramental life, kept alive within the nursing home, allowed each resident to remain close to their faith. 

“Daily Mass and a nightly Rosary (always the Sorrowful Mysteries) continued to bookend her days up until the last few months of her life,” Fassbender told the Register.  

“Mass, saying prayers together, sharing that others are praying for her all put a sparkle in her eye, even on the worst of days. The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity who operated the home where she lived in the final years helped make sure the dignity of the faith was alive in her life.” 

And the science is supported by what she witnessed, especially in her grandmother’s receptivity to the Eucharist. “All those moments I would see her coming back from Mass, it was not my imagination thinking she was better because of the Eucharist,” Fassbender recalled.  

“It was a spiritual memory that cannot be described in any other form of memory. She never forgot her prayers, her faith nor the people that formed her in her faith. They transcended the memory loss occurring in her mind. These were important. But it was the sacraments that could lift her out of a bad day, a day filled with suffering, struggles and the progression into dementia.” 


Body of Christ 

Beyond spiritual memories, religion and religious practices also carry memories of comfort and a sense of peace. And that is why nurses and doctors employ this science in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities — to help those experiencing both agitation and depression. 

Sister Peter recalled the transformation that occurred when staff moved residents to the common area around 3 p.m. daily, just when they noticed residents getting a bit cantankerous or confused. They would take these frustrated souls to a room all together and lead them in the Rosary while Ave Maria played. Instant peace came upon them, attesting to the Lord’s hand at work, the truth of our one, holy and apostolic faith. 

“I believe even in your confusion,” Sister Peter said, “if you mention Jesus, or in the Catholic faith, the Blessed Mother, it relies on connections. More importantly, it’s a memory of a relationship that brought you much comfort.” 

“The Lord never leaves us. I know we all have a soul, and our soul doesn’t get the disease. The disease is in the human body. If you stay focused on who God is for each of us — his love for each of us — I would think that it’s only natural that you would believe God’s love is intact, whether you have Alzheimer’s or not. For those with cognitive impairment, it is difficult to tell what is going on in the mind. However, I believe that God is present with them. Perhaps none of us can explain how this presents itself for each person, because the relationship with God is different with each person.” 

In moments when patients are invited to prayer, receive Holy Communion, or even join in songs at Mass, “they know who God is and derive comfort in his care. For many of the people we serve now, it was ingrained in them that God made them to know, love and serve him in this world and be with him in the next.” 

Thinking of Corpus Christi, Sister Peter said the solemnity brings to mind the truth that we are all indeed one body within the Catholic Church.  

“It allows us to be in awe of the fact that Jesus’ Body and Blood are present — he never leaves us. At the Last Supper, Jesus says, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ We can experience this phenomenon every day, or at least experience it on Sunday,” Sister Peter said. “For cognitively impaired elders, even in their confusion, when they see the Host and chalice raised and are receiving Communion, they have a sense of knowing that Jesus is present.”