The projects below are initiatives supported or run by the Centre which seek to practically impact the community.

Meeting the Spiritual Needs of People with Advanced Dementia

In 2010 the Centre completed a piece of work funded by the AHRC which looked at the spiritual needs and lives of people with profound learning disability: 'Understanding the spiritual lives of people with profound and complex learning disabilities: a community oriented action research approach'. A product that came unexpectedly out of this study was the 'ASSFAP: a seven stepped facilitated action plan for meeting the spiritual needs of intellectually and cognitively disabled people'.

This educational and process tool/system was specifically designed to be used by communities to explore, understand and respond to the spiritual needs of people with severe intellectual and cognitive impairments through the use of an action planning system of spiritual care development and delivery. Whilst there are recognisable differences between the two populations, it was felt that this process could be transferred and applied to other settings and that it could provide for the needs of a wide range of people with profound communication difficulties.

People with advanced dementia are a group of people, like those with profound learning difficulties, who are often overlooked and can be the subject of poor care through a lack of knowing what to do and how to be with them. This resource provides a method of "doing and being" for those who care for them professionally and within families, which enhances the quality of life of both the carers and the people with communication difficulties.

The project presented here focuses on making this resource (ASSFAP) available to the community of carers who look after people with advanced dementia; either those who live either at home, in residential care or in hospital. It comes at a time when the care of frail elderly people has been spotlighted by The Care Inspectorate (formerly the Care Commission) as requiring urgent attention. There is growing concern that care of older people, particularly those with advanced dementia, is being reduced to what has been called "bed and body work" to the enormous detriment of the older person and shame of our society.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It will focus specifically on exploring how the ASSFAP model can be effectively utilised within the context of advanced dementia. More details will be available when the project commences in March 2014.

Welcoming Church Forum

Welcoming Church Forum (WCF) is a group that has been created to provide support to children with a disability, their families, and the churches they attend across Aberdeen. WCF is committed to helping connect families and churches to a wider support network across Aberdeen so that children with a disability know they are loved, families know they are cared for, and churches know they have support to minister to all in their midst.

WCF Mission Statement:

  • We believe the Body of Christ is one in unity.
  • All people are equally valuable and welcome in the Body of Christ regardless of their abilities or disabilities.
  • We can grow as a Body by sharing our struggles, successes, stories and dreams with each other.
  • We can work to make the Gospel and our traditions accessible to every member of the congregation regardless of their needs or difficulties.

 St Paul says:

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ."

Welcoming Church Forum:

  • hopes to create places of belonging for children with disabilities in the worshipping community by building relationships in and amongst the churches in Aberdeen.
  • will work with any church, in any denomination, to develop their programme so that children with a disability or ASN* are equally included in the service and congregation.
  • will provide support, help to arrange training and networking events, and access to appropriate resources for each church to make this happen.
  • will work with families individually or collectively through city-wide workshops and events to help provide support.

* ASN is an abbreviation of Additional Support Needs, which will be used throughout this website and all WCF text as interchangeable with the term disability. Please forgive where these terms are insufficient and do not do justice to the children to whom they refer.

About Welcoming Church Forum

WCF is an ecumenical group helping churches in Aberdeen to create places of support, welcome and belonging for children with disabilities and their families. WCF is made up of parents, theologians, ministers, professionals and others committed to voicing the needs of children with ASN and their families.

The story of Welcoming Church Forum began for me on August 29, 2003, when my first son Adam was born with Down Syndrome and later diagnosed with Autism. As he has grown so have his challenges, and he does not leave his challenges at the door when we enter our church. Over the years many caring church staff have worked with Adam, but I always felt that something was missing. No matter how much other people accepted Adam, I felt they did not know what to do with him. I found that I was still not comfortable with who Adam is, in church of all places! Part of that problem was that we felt it was difficult for people in the church to understand Adam. Workers there would often see his behaviours as "problems" rather than as part of his unique person and the struggles accompanying his diagnosis. I would often spend a service trying to keep him quiet rather than listening and learning from God's word. Another issue was having enough support as a family to advocate on Adam's behalf, as he cannot speak for himself. I felt that I had to apologise for Adam's challenges, when in reality Adam was showing me all along the need there is in the church today:

"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)

"Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves." (Romans 12:10)

"Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brotherslove one another deeply, from the heart." (1 Peter 1:22)

Children like Adam, by their very nature, bring out our deep need for the love of Christ to permeate our every thought, word and action, especially in the Church. Children with disabilities help us to realise that we often lack the courage and desire as a church to welcome and accept all people without regard to their presumed ability or need.

This is our mission at Welcoming Church Forum:

We want to see relationships thrive in and among the churches in Aberdeen, through networking and public dialogue. We hope to build this foundation by embracing and sharing the stories of families impacted by disability and how churches are working with them. We hope to see children with disabilities come to know they belong at the foot of the Cross and are deeply cared for, without regard to the challenges presented by their disability. We want to see families be empowered and encouraged at church and congregations be supported in their work with children with cognitive disabilities. We want to see an end to situations of grief, frustration, misunderstanding and isolation in the Church where situations of disability are involved.

Stephanie Brock, Chair of WCF

Dementia: Healing Garden Project

Dementia Healing Garden Project (Click here for the video of the project)

Healing Garden at Persley Castle Nursing Home

This paper tells the story of the building and development of a healing garden project in Persley Castle Nursing Home in Aberdeen in a way that recognizes the spiritual nature of therapeutic gardening. The story is about creating an expressive space where relationships are encouraged as a way of reducing ‘empty time’. It is a story about creating a space where all of us can learn to ‘live in the moment’ with people in severe and advanced stages of dementia. (Swinton 2011)


In my first encounter with the home, I noticed a large, sadly neglected garden at the rear of the house. Set on the banks of a river in an area known locally as a beauty spot, the home overlooks a beautiful turn of the river where the current flows swiftly, tumbling down over boulders, rocks and islands as well as being directed by the remains of the 19th century paper making engineering of mill lades and canal offshoots. Little use was being made of the garden apart from a small tired patio area with a few flowerpots containing the dead remains of summer plants. The unkempt grass was sodden, impossible to walk on in November, with slippery deep ruts and puddles. With the river view hidden by shrubs and bushes left to their own devices for many years, nevertheless, the timeless sound of the water, bird song and the rustle of ancient beech trees on the steep bank beyond the garden spoke a timeless language to me. I felt again the deep the sadness of having had to leave my ‘dementing’ husband, in the home as a full time ‘Service User’ a few weeks previously.


The word spiritual is bandied around as if we all know what it means, but at this moment, it was indeed a spiritual moment that led me to reflect in prayer somewhere between lament and despair (Barclay 2012). The notion of doing something about the garden came slowly to me, emerging from a confused sense of failure as a wife, compassion for those whose lives had become reduced to a timetable arranged around shift patterns, and a flagging trust in God.

Here, though, I am using the term spiritual to encompass meaning, purpose, relatedness and a connection with nature through the deliberate practices of story telling, listening, remembrance, gift, awareness of the numinous, and closeness to nature through therapeutic gardening (Mowat 2011).

Therapeutic Gardening

What is Therapeutic Gardening?

Briefly, therapeutic gardening has developed in the UK and beyond, and is specifically designed to address the physical, psychological, social, emotional and spiritual needs of people who use the garden. (Trellis (Scottish Therapeutic Gardening Network) 2011). In relation to older people, especially those with dementia, a growing body of research (Chapman, Hazen et al. 2007) highlights specific benefits of access to the natural environment, such as:

  • Easy access to the outdoors and natural light
  • Reduction in agitated behaviours (pacing, wandering)
  • Relief from boredom and fatigue in full time residential care
  • Stimulation by directed attention to complete complex tasks
  • Encourages walking
  • Restorative by drawing on memories of activities in earlier life
  • Offering sparks for conversation with everyone in the community

Click here to see more about the Healing Garden Project, by Aileen Barclay.