Faith and Dementia
Jul 8, 2020 · Scott Hoezee
How can Christians support loved ones and fellow church members who suffer from some form of dementia?
This is a key question and make no mistake it is an issue more of us than not will face. The statistics are sobering. According to a 2019 report from the Alzheimer’s Association, within the next 25 years the number of people in the world who have Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, vascular, or any one of almost 120 different forms of dementia will get into the many millions of people (p.23).
Dementia is difficult for all families, but trying to square faith with dementia confronts us with issues and questions that can be pastorally and personally very painful. In the Groundwork episode “Faith and Dementia” my co-host Dave Bast and I dig into scripture to discuss the spiritual perspective of this physical reality.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is not forgetfulness such as not remembering where you put the car keys, being able to come up with someone’s name, or needing to consult the recipe card for a chocolate chip cookie recipe you had known by heart for decades. Yes, dementia does affect our active recall of information, and if the disease progresses far enough, whole segments of memory will no longer be available to a person—the memories are still there but the pathways to retrieve them quite literally dry up. Everyone’s recall slows as they age, and so-called “senior moments” do not necessarily, by themselves signal dementia.
Dementia affects almost the entire brain and so people with dementia may have difficulty seeing and hearing in addition to losing long stretches of their past and sometimes more immediate memories. When you combine these visual, auditory, and more significant memory issues with other normal parts of the aging process like neuropathy in hands and feet, then one sees that a person with dementia faces a whole slew of challenges making once-simple daily tasks exceedingly difficult to execute.
As we grapple with these changing physical realities, questions about the disease’s impact on our faith and our spiritual reality begin tapping on our shoulders too.
Christians and Dementia
What about faith and dementia? As believers begin witnessing or experiencing the difficult physical symptoms of dementia it’s natural to find ourselves begin asking questions like:
- What happens to us when we can no longer recall core truths of the Christian story?
- Christians have often said that when it comes to taking the Lord’s Supper it is important to “discern the body,” to know what we are doing so we do not “eat and drink judgment” to ourselves. Does that mean that a believer with dementia ought not be allowed to participate in the sacrament?
- Can a Christian with dementia forget God?
We long for spiritual certainty for ourselves and our loved ones, a certainty we can only find in a solid faith foundation deeply rooted in scripture.
Assurance from Scripture
If there is one thing the Bible makes clear it is that salvation is not up to us. It never comes at our initiation. It is never achieved because of our hard work. And for Christians who baptize infants, we have likewise long made it clear that extending God’s saving promises to a person does not depend on how much that person knows. After all, it goes without saying that babies at the baptismal font are not there because they passed a knowledge test to qualify for the sacrament!
We could wish that just being a follower of Christ would make us immune from all kinds of conditions and maladies, including any form of dementia, but we know, that for now, believers are not spared cancer or arthritis or dementia. Such things never result from a lack of faith and are never punishments sent to us by God.
Scripture assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even a dementia that may strip a person of her awareness of God’s presence (Romans 8:38-29). Neither should those with dementia be denied access to worship in whatever form they can manage nor should they be denied participation in the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes the wider faith community needs to believe for someone when a person finds himself unable to believe or participate in the life of the faith as might otherwise be true. And in any event, the sacraments are always far more about what God is doing for us and within us than what we are doing.
Faith and Dementia
Few things are as painful as feeling like you have “lost” a beloved person even though physically he or she is still present. The ravages of dementia can leave behind what seems to be only the outer shell of a once vibrant and robust personality. But we are people of faith and so we know that this dear person is never lost to God. Jesus knows who this cherished child of God is and will be again in the restoration of the kingdom.
Such knowledge will not take away all our pain. But it provides us with what we need as Christians dealing with dementia: hope. Study this truth with us, along with how it applies to depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions, in the podcast Bible study “Finding Strength and Support in Scripture.”
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