Dementia is caused by physical disease of the brain. It results in the brain progressively declining. Symptoms can include memory loss, delusions and distressing changes in behaviour. Those who live with dementia can experience problems with understanding, coordination or speech. Sometimes those who are close to them observe aggression, lack of inhibition, hoarding or depression. There may be disturbances in sleep and eating. These symptoms are extremely distressing for the sufferer and also for their family and friends. Yet in spite of these problems, a person who is suffering from dementia is still open to emotional and spiritual experiences.
Caring for a person with dementia is not easy and becomes progressively more difficult. There can be frustration, embarrassment or guilt about how the affected person is behaving. In the vast majority of cases it eventually becomes impossible to care for a person with dementia for twenty-four hours a day, every day. Sooner or later the affected person will need to receive specialist care, and that may involve living in a nursing home.
The effects of the advanced disease are so devastating to the personality that it may seem to family and friends that their loved one has ceased to exist even though they are still physically alive. It can seem that all that is left is a body that needs to be fed, washed and cared for. However, a person with dementia is still a person, who happens to have a disability.
Christians believe that illness or affliction does not take away a person’s inherent value as a human being. Everyone is unique, created in the image of God and precious to God. Every person deserves to be treated with absolute respect and dignity regardless of their age or state of health. The Bible tells us to ‘rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere your God’.
In his time of ministry on earth Jesus demonstrated how to love and respect all people. That included the old, the sick, the sinful, and all who were sidelined. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus by having the same love and service for those in need. That need includes those living with dementia. But Christians are called also to care for and support carers, who are sometimes under extreme stress which can go unnoticed.
Get support for yourself via your doctor’s surgery, or a carer’s centre. Find helpful resources at: www.alzheimers.org.uk, where a huge variety of fact sheets is available to download, or www.levesoncentre.org.uk, a centre of excellence in the field of dementia and spirituality: www.fordementia.org.uk, a national charity committed to improving the quality of life for all people affected by dementia.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Even to your old age and grey hairs
I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
Where to find it:
About these words:
These words were written about 2,700 years ago by Isaiah. He was known as a prophet – a person who spoke of the liberation of God’s people. These words are emphatic and offer reassurance, hope and help to both the patient and the carer.
And they said…
Rabbi Abraham Heschel , 1907-1972, from the 1971 White House Conference on Ageing:
It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment. And the three are always there. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
Oliver Sacks, psychologist, in his book ‘The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’:
A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being … matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him.
Esther Mary Walker, poet, 1911-2005, ‘Beatitudes for friends of the aged’:
Blessed are they who understand
my faltering step and palsied hand.
Blessed are they who know that my ears today
must strain to catch the things they say.
Blessed are they who seem to know
that my eyes are dim and my wits are slow.
Blessed are they who looked away
when coffee spilled at table today.
Blessed are they with a cheery smile
who stop to chat for a little while.
Blessed are they who never say,
‘You’ve told that story twice today’.
Blessed are they who know the ways
to bring back memories of yesterdays.
Blessed are they who make it known
that I’m loved, respected and not alone.
Blessed are they who know I’m at a loss
to find the strength to carry the cross.
Blessed are they who ease the days
On my journey home in loving ways.