‘It’s not fair!’ is often the first reaction from a partner or family when a love one develops dementia. A loving mother gradually becomes totally silent; a church leader uses bad language that he has never uttered before; a likeable person becomes dificult and unlovable. What is going on?
One explanation used to be that the person’s brain was simply sorting through unresolved issues, mentally ‘packing their bags’. The theory was that, given the right sort of psychological support, the process would complete and the person become calm again.
Not much is heard of this theory now, probably because of its lack of success. Then there are various ‘theological’ rationales, which put the behaviour down to the devil, or to buried and unforgiven sin.
Repression is also given as the reason why some sufferers start to use swear-words that have never passed their lips before. The reasoning is that as a person is weakened by illness or old age, the suppressed desire to swear breaks through.
Not so, say the Scriptures. None of these scenarios is likely to be correct, for the following reasons.
Fellowship with God
The Christian life is all about continual fellowship with God (1 John 1:5). Christians are those who have come to faith in Christ and have fellowshipped and walked with him to the best of their understanding.
It is true that none of us is without sin for ‘if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’. But the only people who are truly conscious of sin are Christians, and they constantly confess it. It is not only cleansed; it has been finally addressed and dealt with by Christ.
When Jesus died he not only forgave our sins; he removed all recollection of our sins in the reckoning of God. He procured for us a standing with God equal to his own. He removed entirely the wrath, anger and judgement that God has against our sins.
Because of this there cannot be any unforgiven sin in a believer. There may be a failure to realise that sins are forgiven, and other problems that require us to make restitution and resolve differences with others.
But there is no such thing as unforgiven sin that will come back to haunt and taunt us in our confused mental state, and for which we must make some further act of atonement and confession.
Those who hold that abnormal behaviour in dementia is related to unforgiven sins, diminish the work of the cross and made a direct attack on the sufficiency of Christ’s death. And those who grieve over past shortcomings, or their failure to put things right, need to be pointed constantly to the cross.
So whatever is going on in the mind of a confused person, it is not sin needing to be forgiven. For instance, swearing is not evidence of a suppressed sinful desire, but a manifestation of the disease.
It is the very nature of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, that mental processes break down and malfunction. The brain indelibly records everything that we ever see, hear or do. Normally, a believer distinguishes between wholesome and evil speech and rejects the latter. When mental illness prevails, however, it interferes with the brain’s mechanisms and abnormal behaviour takes place.
We must keep repeating this fact, that it is a disease that produces such things. Here is a poor confused person who has been a believer all his life – but he is in a fallen world and dementia has struck him down.
Part of the impact of that terrible illness is this aberrant behaviour, and he has no control over it. It is not that he does not want to control it – it is beyond him. Indeed, he may not even be aware that he is doing strange things.
Yet there are sometimes glimpses of grace, fleeting moments when the real person unexpectedly breaks through. A lady suffering from Alzheimer’s disease became totally silent, not uttering a single word for 18 months. Suddenly, out of the blue, she turned to her daughter and said: ‘Never forget dear – God never forgets us. Remember that dear’. She died the following day.
Sometimes the person does seem to ‘click back’ momentarily, and we know that there are triggers that can do this. It may be music, hymn singing, reciting the Lord’s prayer, or reading the Word. Even if the person still stays hidden by the illness, they will often become less agitated when listening to these things.
One Pilgrim Home manager recounts how an elderly lady, who refused to be settled in bed one night, agreed to be prayed for with another resident present. She herself joined in, and interceded for the other resident on an issue that the other lady had deliberately not shared with anyone. ‘Only the Holy Spirit could have told her that’, the second lady said in awe.
Christian residential homes are often places of safety and of refuge, a sweet respite for sufferers. The grievous emotions of Psalm 31 are usually well recognised and addressed, and the sense of being neglected, rejected and despised is known. Involvement with such homes, and younger people pursuing vocational careers in this field, are surely a duty, not an option for churches today.
Carers at home
But often the care is provided at home by a spouse or a caring relative (usually a daughter). Here is a ministry for the local church in supporting and ministering to both carer and sufferer alike. Here is a place for ‘works of compassion’.
Of course, such care is demanding and difficult, and many people baulk at it. Yet is there not here the privilege of ministering to Christ with ‘a cup of water’? Sometimes all that can be done is to hold the person’s hand, speak respectfully and show affection. Caring for some of these confused elderly folk can be heavy and hard.
But by putting it in the light of eternity, and remembering that the confused person is someone in whom God is forming Jesus Christ, we can see what a privilege is granted to us by the Lord. What is done for them is done unto Jesus (Matthew 25:34-40).
A better future
Finally, we must remember Jesus’ promise in John 14: ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. These seriously ill believers are going somewhere better, where there is no sickness, no pain, no sorrow, no confusion, no dementia!
One day soon they will be walking around heaven, absolutely whole and more alert and intelligent than they have ever been. And it is in the light of that great certainty that we must minister to those we know who face this condition. And in it all, we remember that Jesus said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5-6).
Further help from:
www.e-help4u.org A Christian website on ageing.
Pilgrim Homes, 175 Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 2AL (Tel. 020 7407 5466). Probably the best Christian organisation providing residential care for older people. They have homes in several parts of the country.
Alzheimer’s Disease Society, 10 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1PH (Tel. 0845 300 0336). This is the foremost charity dealing with dementia and offers support to sufferers and carers. There are local groups in many parts of the country.