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Stirring Memories


OC REGISTER, March 24, 2014-

The sermon is about love.

It's not a traditional sermon. But this isn't a traditional church service.

Pastor Bob Mooney stands before the 50 or so faithful gathered in the first rows of Messiah Lutheran Church in Yorba Linda. Most arrived in wheelchairs and using walkers, accompanied by a caretaker or loved one.

“God loves you,” Mooney says. “You will never walk alone.”

From the front row, Sara Jacobson, 90, a small-town girl from Nebraska who taught elementary school and served in the Navy Nurse Corps, listens intently.

A few times, she speaks out during Mooney's sermon.

“We sure can try!” Jacobson says after Mooney urges congregants to love others selflessly.

The heartbreaking and debilitating neurological condition of dementia may be crippling the lives of these congregants – some can't speak, many forget who their family members are – but, for a while, in this sanctuary, on this recent weekday, spiritual connections appear to be being made.


For more than a dozen years, the Alzheimer's Association, Orange County, has been organizing monthly church trips for individuals experiencing memory loss – as well as for their families.

The specialized services, mostly at Christian churches but also catering to those of Jewish and Muslim faiths, are shorter for attention-challenged people who have Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

Singing hymns is the focus.

The sermon is brief.

Talking not only is expected by congregants, but encouraged.

Through its Faith-Based Community Outreach Program, the AAOC provides resources, guidance and a “tool kit” for people and organizations who want to organize the services.

Until now, assisted-living facilities such as Silverado Newport Mesa Memory Care Community, where Jacobson has lived for one year, mostly have been stepping up to help fulfill the spiritual needs of residents by taking them on the church field trips.

Jim McAleer, president and chief executive of the AAOC, says his organization is looking for service-oriented community partners to help expand the grass-roots program – for example, churches and Rotary clubs.

He's attended some of the church services and recognizes their value.

“It was pretty obvious they were plugged in,” McAleer said of the churchgoers. “These services not only are important for the people with the disease, but also for the caregivers.”


It's mid-morning, and the Silverado community, in Costa Mesa, is buzzing with activity.

While jazz plays over the sound system, several residents sit around a table on the back patio. In an exercise for their senses, they touch sand and seashells in an effort to remember, years and even decades ago, the singular pleasures of the beach.

In the main dining room, a cooking instructor discusses Japanese cuisine. Lunch soon will be served.

In another room, about a dozen residents engage in a round of carpet bowling as Chuck Berry plays on the boom box.

In a break area, Pearl Oku, 83, sits at a table with her son, Pat Lee, a real estate agent in Lake Forest.

Oku, a former stenographer who has lived at Silverado Newport Mesa Memory Care Community since May, is feeling frustrated.

She's just participated in a weekly cognitive exercise class, in which participants try to complete various written exercises that use different parts of their brain.

Oku, drinking coffee, points to her head.

“My mind used to be right, but it doesn't work anymore,” Oku says. “I think there's something wrong with me.”

Along with Jacobson and other residents of the Silverado community, Oku attended the Messiah Lutheran Church service. When healthy, she went to Calvary Chapel in Lake Forest.

Lee, 50, says his mother became a Christian when she was a young teenager. One of eight siblings, Oku had to help care for her younger brothers and sisters after her father left the family.

God has been central to her life ever since, Lee says.

“In the car, when we listen to (sermons) on the radio, she'll repeatedly say ‘Amen,' ” Lee says. “And when she goes to church, she's right there.”

Lee says his mother's faith remains intact despite her dementia. “This is something that surpasses the intellect,” he says.

Oku is restless. She wants to walk around.

“My mind doesn't work anymore,” she says.


Silverado care center resident Joann Harper, 82, is telling a story about how a brother in her native England sabotaged her first date.

When she walked outside the door to meet her suitor, her brother grabbed a wet rag and wiped the makeup off her face.

Harper, who has a courtly and warm manner about her, loves the monthly church excursions. And she's filled in at worship services at the Silverado community when the regular Sunday pastor couldn't make it.

Raised a Methodist while growing up in London, Harper describes herself as a born-again Christian. She tears up when describing the moment she accepted Christ as her savior.

“It was like he was speaking to my heart,” she says.

Harper retells the story about her brother wiping makeup off her face.

Her hands clasp a well-worn Bible.

She rhapsodizes about her faith.

“It's a love far better than love for a man,” she says.

Harper's daughter-in-law, Christina Harper, a registered nurse and director of health services at Silverado Newport Mesa Memory Care Community, says providing ways for residents to practice their faith is a crucial component to their overall well-being.

“I've seen people in hospice care who were unable to communicate or recognize their loved ones instantly fold their hands and bow their heads when a pastor walks in the room,” Harper says.

Faith, she says, is something that not even advanced dementia appears to be able to extinguish, she says.

Says Risa Bishop, administrator of the Silverado community in Costa Mesa, one of three operated by Silverado in Orange County: “It's something that comes from the soul. It's not cerebral. It's who they are.”

Joann Harper excitedly discusses how she plans to start leading Bible study at the Silverado care center Wednesday evenings.

Then, for a third time, she begins to tell the story about her brother wiping makeup off her face.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.

Mooney is leading congregants through popular church hymns.

In his sermon, he regales them with stories about his childhood in Iowa. He tells them about his grandfather, who gave him his first watch and died on his seventh birthday.

That watch, Mooney says, reminds him of love.

His grandmother, he says, was a cleaning lady in a nursing home who never complained about work. She, too, reminds him of love.

“Bless her heart,” a woman says from the back of the church.

He shows them pictures of his wife. He asks if anyone has children or nieces or nephews.

“They've learned how to love from you,” Mooney says.

After the service, the group enjoys a church-hosted lunch of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, chips, lemon cake and root-beer floats.

Before they retire to eat, Mooney reminds the congregants that they all are special. He tells them he doesn't know all of their stories. And he admits that he, too, sometimes has trouble remembering things.

Then Mooney implores them:

“But if you remember today,” he says, “that's the most important thing.”


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