Dementia and spirituality – we may forget but God remembers
Ruth Young, Community Engagement Advisor at Livability, explores the question of spirituality and progressive cognitive conditions such as dementia. Ruth argures that as far as the Bible is concerned, God is faithful, and stays close to us, despite what we are going through.
Asking difficult questions
Last autumn I was asked to lead a workshop on the topic of ‘spirituality for dementia.’ Before I even began, a participant asked quite forcefully whether or not a person with dementia can have spirituality in their life and clearly doubted it. I suggested we revisit this thought at the end of the session and when we finished, her fears were allayed. Anxiety was the source of her interrogation: when we are lost in the depths of memory loss or disorientation, how do we know that God still abides in us and we in him?
The short answer might be that we do not know. For those of us who have cared for someone into the later stages of dementia, it feels like we have lost the person that we knew and loved. Their personality may seem changed, their body different. They may appear to not be the same. It may feel they have disappeared to a place we cannot reach, where there are no words. It is no wonder questions emerge about what it means when everything seems so compromised. Some might question why? What is God playing at, allowing this condition to strip away people’s humanity?
What do we mean by spirituality?
Humanity lies at the heart of what we mean by ‘spirituality.’ However differently spirituality is understood, according to whatever faith or none you hold, it is the word we all use to try to name the indescribable, quintessential mystery of what it means to be human. It embraces our search for meaning and purpose, love and hope. It informs how we live and our relationships with others and to the whole of creation. For people of faith, it expresses what is sacred, framing our beliefs, attitudes and actions. For those with a Christian world view, it describes the way in which, in God, we ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28) and how he remains with us ‘through all the changing scenes of life.’ (Nahum Tate, 1698 hymn)
The Christian faith asserts that God remains with us, in every circumstance. Whatever our situation, the state of our relationships, our finances, our health, our mind, our spirit – God is faithful. It’s understandable to be tempted to think that in the experience of dementia (as indeed in depression, or any other mental health crisis) God might seem absent. But in such circumstances, the promises of Scripture, the ‘be not afraids’ and ‘I am with yous,’ still hold true. I don’t believe it’s accidental that there are 365 ‘be not afraids’ in the Bible. Whatever we are facing, that’s one for every day of the year. Isaiah 43 gives just one of them, alongside the assurances of some of the ‘I am with yous’:The Lord God who created you says: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You belong to me. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. Isaiah 43:1-3
A different way of seeing things
With such a worldview as our back drop, perhaps there can be a ‘counter-narrative’ to what we may have previously thought. People living with dementia, or any kind of cognitive impairment, do have spirituality, because it depends not on brain function but on God and his unending love for those he created for himself: human beings.
For those of us caring for someone with dementia, we can hold the memory of these truths on their behalf. We tend to overlook the fact that dementia is a progressive condition. It can take years for the disease to do its worst. That time offers a wonderful opportunity to gather spiritual memories to sustain each other when memories have faded.
There are the obvious recollections like favourite hymns and songs, best-loved Bible stories and Psalms, Bible verses and prayers. But there are others, too: special places and people; those who nurtured and encouraged; preferred styles of worship; significant symbols, including sacraments; perfumes, plants, poems – all kinds of things that renew spiritual life. Often a reminder evokes a response: a memory is stirred deep within the spirit and the person living with dementia emerges from their hidden place.
For more information about Livability’s work with dementia inclusive church, visit our resources zone.