The dictionary defines dementia as “a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.” I call it slow death. It is nothing less than the fading away of someone you knew and loved until they are no longer recognizable to you or even to themselves. It is a progression that robs people of their memories, often their personalities, in short, the very essence of who they were. Oh, there may be flashes of their old personality that shine forth from time to time, but this only makes the loss of who they used to be that much more painful to witness. It is the slowness of all this that is most excruciating. I have long thought it best to do your dying all at once but seeing this up close makes me pray all the more fervently “Lord don’t let me linger”.
Linger, dementia victims do, however. It leaves one with enough time to question why. Why do they need to suffer like this? Why do loved ones have to suffer the slow loss of people close to them? Why do we have to witness people becoming dead while still maintaining a physical presence. In the end that is the deep cruelty of this disease. You see your loved ones fade until they are dead. Dead in every meaningful sense. All that is left is autonomous physical processes that bear little resemblance to the whole person they once were.
As a person of faith, I know there is no answer to these questions. I learned a long time ago that there is a line above which God has not revealed Himself to us. Above that line, God in His domain is completely unknowable, the ultimate Other. This is why there is no answer to questions of why there are diseases like dementia or cancer; why there are natural disasters; why there is no end to the way’s humans gouge each other physically, emotionally, etc…. If we travel above that dominion line in search of the mind of God, we will end up with our heads stuffed firmly up our asses. Not a good look, I assure you.
At the same time, I learned that below that line God has revealed Himself to us in the life, death and resurrection of His son Jesus the Christ. It is to this exemplar that followers of Christ must turn to for help. Nothing about Jesus’ life should tell us that there is escape from the pain of human life. Jesus worked, He loved, He suffered loss. He wept at the loss of friends and wept for the condition of humanity. He became human enough that He suffered an excruciating, painful death Himself.
All we can do is to attempt to do as Jesus did; patiently accept the will of God. This Jesus did right up to the end when He asked God to forgive those who were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34). We, of course can never attain the perfection that Jesus did. All we can do is the best we can. Regarding dealing with people suffering dementia, all we can do is to keep them safe, comfortable and be as gracious toward them as we possibly can. None of this is easy. It is best to keep in mind that none of what Jesus did was easy. None of what God asks anyone to do is easy. This difficulty is a part of our humanity. I have always been awe struck that God loves us and knows us so well that His son took upon Himself our humanity. Nothing we go through is alien to God.
In the end those who have died before our eyes due to dementia will suffer a second, physical death. I know I will mourn at that time as well. I doubt, however that that mourning will be as deep as that which has accompanied the slow fading away of the people I knew and loved. I also recognize that this mourning will be for me and for all those who remain, as all such mourning is. I hope that in faith I will accept the second, physical death as a thing which will cause me pain but not so the deceased. Trusting in the promises, as I do, I pray that I will in faith accept that physical death has released them from all worry, all pain and all the anxiety ridden confusion associated with dementia. I believe with all my heart that at that time they will be in eternity, at the banquet; no more tears and their joy complete evermore in the presence of an all loving God.
Praise Be to God