My dad is dying.
I can look back over the last decade and see that the dementia that has him firmly in its grip was beginning about 10 years ago, although we didn’t recognize it then. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011 that we saw this horrible disease take its first lurch forward.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s and other dementias currently affect more than 5 million people in the United States. Our aging baby boomers will bring an exponential increase in those numbers. The families of those suffering with Alzheimer’s or another dementia will find themselves in the situation my siblings and I find ourselves in right now.
There are certainly many, many illnesses that cause suffering and misery, but none like age-related dementia and its evil twin, Alzheimer’s. These conditions slowly steal memories and abilities away from a person as the plaques and tangles make their way through the brain. Otherwise active, healthy people lose their ability to function in life. They first lose their short-term memory, then their long-term memories, then their ability to accomplish the most basic of tasks. They become, in many ways, babies in an adult body.
Ministry to those who are caring for people with Alzheimer’s/dementia is an arena that begs for hope in a place of dense emotional fog and sorrow. Even when the time comes that your loved one has to be placed in a facility, the job of caregiver goes on to some extent. While the physical demands are met by the professional staff, family members continue to provide an important link between their loved one and the staff, often acting as an advocate. As even an assistant caregiver, the daily slipping away of your loved one is excruciating to watch and experience. Your mom or dad becomes someone you never knew, sometimes with startling personality changes and often spewing words that hurt. Their ability to reason fades away, and they regress to act like young children who just want their way despite any risk or danger. They may be combative and physically assault those trying to help them, because they have gone to a place in their mind that is not reality.
Many caregivers at some point say they feel absolutely alone, that no one really understands what they are going through. They live in a kind of quiet desperation, feeling alone and helpless even if they are in a room full of people making suggestions for ways to help.
“My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.”
If you are in the midst of this trial, I strongly recommend immersing yourself in the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament. I have found great comfort in praying God’s inspired words back to Him. It has become one of the most effective ways of soothing my anxious, sad, and weary heart.
Psalm 77 is especially helpful for the caregiver to meditate upon. The Psalm begins with questions and doubts that arise in times like these, and turns to the remembrance of God’s faithfulness. It brings great comfort.
There is a special burden when your loved one is unregenerate. Believing family members, already worn down from the increasing care needs of their loved one, are doubly burdened as they understand that the misery presently endured may be only the beginning of suffering for that person. They need hope.
The unregenerate dementia sufferer may have heard and rejected the gospel numerous times in previous years, and you may think all hope of salvation for them is lost. Don’t shy away from speaking about God with your loved one. Point them to God at every opportunity. Speak often about who God is and what He has done, and also about salvation in Christ. Read the Bible to him. Sing simple but meaningful hymns in her presence. The Word of God is powerful and may penetrate the haze of their thinking. And pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit will cause them to cry out for God.
May I encourage you by reminding you that while your loved one is lost to you in Alzheimer’s/dementia, he or she is never lost to God. The God who created them can go places in the inner man (the heart) that no human being can go. You can be certain that should God call them for His own, they will not be left in their sin. We may never know their answer in our lifetime, but we can rest in trusting that our loving God is patient and wants no one to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.
If you are caring for someone afflicted with Alzheimer’s or another dementia I would like to recommend two resources to you: Second Forgetting by Dr. Benjamin Mast, and God’s Healing for Life’s Losses by Dr. Bob Kellemen. Both are valuable in aiding the loved ones and caregivers of those who suffer with these diseases.
Questions for Reflection
If you know individuals who are caring for Alzheimer’s/dementia sufferers how can you be more intentional about ministering to them? If you have had family members with these illnesses, what are other Scriptures that have ministered to your soul when you were in need of hope?
Julie has a M.A in Biblical Counseling and certification with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and the International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC). It is her joy to lead an exceptional team of counselors at Reigning Grace Counseling Center. She and her husband, Larry, make their home in Kansas City, MO.