Facing Dementia in Loved Ones

Man suffering with dementia puzzling over a pair of shoes as he tries to get dressed
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“We knew my mother had memory problems for some time, but she refused to acknowledge anything was wrong – and my dad covered for her.”

Justine Purtell says her mother has an “out-of-the-box” personality anyway, so when new quirks developed, Justine attributed it to age and her natural eccentricity.

“Denial burns away quickly in some families, but for us, it took time,” Justine says.

As they sat in the airport after Justine’s father’s funeral, Justine watched her mom tie and untie her right shoe for a full half hour.

“She barked at me when I asked if she needed help,” Justine says, “and continued to tie and untie. It was at that point I knew we had something serious on our hands – and she was coming home to live with my family. So began our journey.”

Facing the Fear

Dementia strikes without regard for physical health or prior intelligence. This apparent randomness often creates fear and anxiety, and may cause friends and family to pull away from the affected individual.

“Some studies say people fear Alzheimer’s, which makes up 70 percent of cases of dementia, more than cancer and even death,” says Dr. John Dunlop, a physician specializing in geriatrics and author of Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia.

Yet Christ calls believers not to fear, but to love boldly. Scripture tells us that His heart is toward the hurting and most vulnerable among us. As those created in His image, we have a responsibility to honor one another and to care for others as Jesus cares for us.

We begin by recognizing how hard it can be to show signs of aging in a culture that prizes those with sharp minds, beauty and youth. Independence is a virtue; dependence is looked down upon. When a life-altering illness strikes, the afflicted are often moved to the margins of everyday life – hidden away in hospitals, care facilities or homes. What’s more, they are typically surrounded by doctors, nurses, techs and other virtual strangers.

Peace and Assurance

When dealing with dementia in another person, it’s a mistake to point out his or her forgetfulness, says John Swinton, author of Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Swinton says we are all so much more than a diagnosis or a defect. Each and every individual represents a distinct life and human experiences. There is far, far more to each of us than sharp minds and youthful bodies.

We are all created in the image of God. No amount of neurological damage can alter that fact. And each person has a story. In facing dementia, remember that loved one’s story.

Even in the face of fading memories, Swinton says we can find peace and rest in the assurance that – regardless of confusion, loss and illness – God securely holds our true identity. We may someday forget our friends and family, even our Savior, but He is faithful. He never forgets.

Just as God holds our memories, each of us can help a person with dementia remember God’s faithfulness in the past, His presence in the midst of current trials and His promises for the future.

Dr. Amos Yong, author of The Bible, Disability, and The Church, refers to the young and healthy as “temporarily-able-bodied.” But if we live long enough, eventually we’ll all be disabled or dependent to some degree. And that’s when we’ll want our friends and family members to tell stories, break out photographs and bring us a slice of our favorite pie.

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with the impact of Alzheimer’s or dementia on family relationships, Focus on the Family has a staff of licensed professional counselors available who would welcome the opportunity to speak with you. Simply call 855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. (Mountain Time) and a Family Help Center staff member will set up a free phone consult.

 

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