Dementia can inflict its victims with memory loss and render them unable to care for themselves. It can cause them to wake up every morning not knowing where they are or who is feeding or bathing them. People with dementia often want to say something but are unable to organize their thoughts or even form the words.
Dementia can change personalities. It has transformed wonderful, loving, godly people into tyrants. It can warp a vibrant relationship with God savored over the years. Its presence can make our very existence become a horrible burden that drains the life out of those we love. Or it can send us to a nursing home to be cared for by strangers until we die.
But dementia is not something that Christians should fear.
At the Nursing Home
Dementia now ranks with cancer as the most feared medical diagnosis. And it is increasingly diagnosed. If the current trend continues, one third of people alive today will experience some form of dementia before they die. Dementia is more common than all but the most trivial forms of cancer.
But perhaps we fear dementia too much. I have observed over and over again that the experience of dementia may be much harder for the caregiver than for the person with the illness.
I will never forget Helen, a retired missionary, who could no longer be cared for at home due to her husband’s infirmities and who lived in a nursing home’s dementia unit. When I would go in to see her, I would often find her with several friends gathered around, listening to her tell stories of Africa. She would be laughing and slap her thigh when she got to the punch line. The entire group would laugh contagiously with her. What difference did it make that she only told three stories and did so over and over again? She enjoyed it and her friends did too.
God’s Purposes in Dementia
I wish everyone’s experience with dementia was as positive as Helen’s. Unfortunately, they often aren’t. Yet our God is a Redeemer, and he can use the heartache of dementia in many ways to accomplish his ultimate purpose to display his glory. Here are three of the ways I have seen God use dementia for his people’s good.
To humble the proud
I have seen people in the early stages of dementia become more patient, gentle, and humble. I have seen folk far too proud and self-sufficient to ever think they needed a Savior turn to Christ in saving faith.
To sanctify caregivers
In the later stages of dementia, the growth may come more in the character and values of the caregiver. They may also grow in patience, trust, and the ability to love unselfishly.
Too often, people with dementia live in their own little world. They are not interested or particularly aware of the world outside. They do not remember much of the past and do not care about the future. They live in the here and now in a private world.
God is glorified when loving people take the time necessary to understand that world. In a sense, they allow themselves to inhabit the world of a person with dementia. They spend time with them, seek to understand how they feel, and learn how to communicate love to them. The victims of dementia still possess an inherent dignity as God’s image bearers. Respecting that dignity glorifies God.
To challenge our assumptions
God is glorified by the way dementia provides us with an opportunity to critique some of our basic assumptions and values. All too often, we attribute too much value to our own intelligence and functional capacities. God does not value us the way we do. He sees our value rooted in nothing less than our being made in his image and redeemed by Christ.
As we overvalue our own abilities, we also undervalue other humans made in God’s image who do not possess those capacities. In consequence, are we not undervaluing the very one in whose image they were made? God forbid!
Be Anxious for Nothing
A fear of dementia may also indicate an inability to fully trust God when life gets tough. Does it make sense to trust God for our eternal salvation while failing to trust that he will provide for us in dementia?
If we fear dementia, we need to recognize that fear and worry are often expressions of pride. Why do we worry? Usually, we worry because we think we are important and anything that detracts from our comfort and happiness has to be bad. If the world were ultimately all about us and our pleasure, that would be true. Thankfully, we can find our greatest joy and fulfillment not in ourselves but in the infinite resources of God and his glory.
Paul says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). Dementia is certainly included in “all things.”
If our goal is to glorify God, we should not fear dementia.