ROME — Having a member over 100 years old is not unusual today for orders of Catholic women religious, but many orders do not have the specialized knowledge or resources to ensure an accurate diagnosis and the best possible plan of care for sisters experiencing dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment, several sisters said.

Sister Jane Wakahiu, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis and head of the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Hilton Foundation, announced May 9 that the foundation was providing $5 million to help launch the Catholic Sisters Cognitive Impairment-Alzheimer’s Global Initiative, a project of the International Union of Superiors General and the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

“Our elderly and infirm sisters are a source of inspiration and wisdom, of living fidelity to religious life entirely. On their shoulders we stand,” Wakahiu said at an afternoon conference at the UISG headquarters and online.

Having aging sisters in the community is a blessing, not a problem, she said, so the sisters want to do everything possible to make sure their older members have a physically, spiritually and mentally healthy old age.

One of the greatest challenges, Wakahiu said, is caring for sisters with Alzheimer’s disease and “its gradual theft of our sisters’ consciousness and capacity. As each patient is unique in their diagnosis, medication and therapy, we need to be attentive. This initiative will provide resources to congregations and conferences (of religious) for education, training, assessment and direct service.”

Sister Peter Lillian Di Maria, a member of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm and director of the Avila Institute of Gerontology in Germantown, New York, provided conference participants with an introduction to caring for those with cognitive impairment.

The most important thing is “educating ourselves about cognitive impairment, dementia and especially Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia,” she said. But it also is essential to remember that dementia is different from “age-associated memory loss” and a slowing down of problem-solving or other mental processes, which do not interfere with a person’s ability to function.

Care must include “continually assessing the person for what they can continue to do and what modifications we might make to help them remain independent or as independent as possible,” she said. In addition, congregations must train those who care for and live with the person.

As the sisters develop the program further, they will work with the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in surveying religious congregations of women about their experience and needs in caring for sisters with dementia.