The following article was written by Benjamin T. Mast, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Associate Clinical Professor of Family and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville.
In this article, Dr. Benjamin T. Mast speaks about his knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease and of remembering the power of gospel during this difficult time. His book, “Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel during Alzheimer’s Disease,” is available today, on Amazon.com.
Memories and Alzheimer’s
I’ve met so many people with Alzheimer’s in my work as a clinical psychologist and professor, that sometimes I find myself imagining what it would be like if I were to develop Alzheimer’s someday. Some people seem to suffer day and night, trying to make sense of what is happening. Others seem to have peace, unaware of the pain their family feels as Alzheimer’s seems to take over.
What will I be like? We know that people with Alzheimer’s forget much, but they do not forget everything. What will I remember? Will I remember the birth of my children? Will I remember my beautiful wife and the joy of our wedding day? Will I remember basketball games, field hockey matches and gymnastics meets? Will I remember our trip to the Grand Canyon? An epic bike race with friends? Will I remember the satisfaction of delivering a good lecture? Or the excitement of publishing a new book?
There are some things we think we will never forget. Of course, we don’t know what the future holds…
Faith for People with Alzheimer’s
But will we forget that which we hold most dear? Will I forget the God I love and have trusted for decades? Will I find any hope in the words of the Bible? Will my wife and children feel burden in caring for me? Will their faith offer any hope or comfort? What about my church? Will they remember me when I am too confused or sick to come to services on Sunday? Will they care for me and lovingly try to help me remember all that I hold dear? When I can no longer remember them, will they still be present? Will they pray for me? Will they try to pray with me?
The well-known statistics remind us that one in three older adults dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and that as many as 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2050. Surveys of Americans also tell us that up to 88% of older people identify as Christians and up to 70% say this is very important to them. There are millions of Christians either living with dementia or serving as a caregiver.
What hope does God offer them? How can they respond to God’s calls and remember him? How can a person with Alzheimer’s remember God when they have trouble remembering things that happened yesterday? What hope is there if they forget?
These are some of the topics I explore in my new book: “Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease.” This is a book for people who are experiencing dementia, caring for someone with dementia, or who are church members who want to better understand how they can step into the challenges of dementia. The scriptures tell us that God has special concern for those who are vulnerable and that he longs for his people (the church) to care for them. Quite simply, I wanted a book that I could hand someone at church that would help them understand Alzheimer’s and how faith and scripture inform the way they might help and care for those affected.
The Power of Gospel During Alzheimer’s
God calls us to remember him in the midst of our difficulty, and I wanted to help people remember God in the midst of the confusing and sometimes terrifying journey of Alzheimer’s. But, even more importantly, I wanted to remind people that even when we forget, God never will. God is always present and he will never forget us.
In reading the scriptures and listening to families tell their stories of faith in dementia, I was amazed at how lovingly near God can be in the midst of Alzheimer’s. God shows his grace in dementia in a variety of ways, when:
- A husband, deep into dementia, who in a moment of clarity thanks his wife for taking such good care of him
- God’s reminder that understands us, even when no one else can
- A husband and wife seeking to live out Colossians 3:17 in the midst of dementia and its behavioral challenges
- God’s unfailing promise to never forget us and to remain faithful, even when we can do neither
- A daughter who feels the comfort of the Lord, knowing that God will be with her mother, even in the nursing home
- An older woman, though confused and often angry, finds peace and connection with God through an old hymn
Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even Alzheimer’s and all the challenges that it brings. No matter how hard it gets, we are never alone.
If I have Alzheimer’s someday, I hope I will remember the goodness of the Lord, take comfort in his presence and hold onto the hope he has promised me. If I forget, I pray that those who love me, whether my immediate family or my church family, will gently and sensitively help me remember.
If you are dealing with Alzheimer’s or another dementia today, I wrote this book for you. I pray these things for you that you might overflow with hope in the promises of God.
Excerpts from Second Forgetting
One of the frustrating and frightening aspects of dementia is our inability to understand why people do the things they do. We often cannot understand why someone hides money in places and forgets about it. We don’t understand why they wake up yelling in the middle of the night or drive off to an unknown location, hours from home.
Even though a person can become confused because of an impaired memory, that person still has real needs, feelings and longings. This is key to understanding the behavioral challenges that occur in people with dementia. As people lose their ability to communicate with words, they have more difficulty expressing their needs, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. The expression of these needs sometimes comes out in agitated behavior, wandering, crying, or aggression. Caregivers can lovingly serve those with Alzheimer’s by trying to understand the underlying need that is prompting the behavior. Often, we only know and understand this partially. Yet even when we don’t fully know what is in the heart and mind of the person with Alzheimer’s, we can take comfort in knowing that there is One who fully knows us all.
J. I. Packer writes about the comfort we have in being known by God:
“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16). I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”
Caregivers often experience frustration — even anger — in trying to know and understand the mind and heart of the person with dementia that they care for. The truth is that there is much we will never know. But God knows. God knows the depths of our hearts and minds, even when they are chaotic and disordered. God knows our secret shame, the guilt of old sins, the pain of bitter disappointments and the dizzying confusion of not knowing who we are, what day it is, or who is taking care of us. Whether you are dealing with dementia or with the physical and emotional demands of caregiving, you can rest in the fact that God knows and loves you fully as a unique individual. Nothing about you — what you’ve done or left undone, what you’ve remembered, or what you’ve forgotten — can change this.
Ultimately, we have the promise that nothing can separate us from the great love of God in Christ. Paul says this in Romans 8:35—39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hard-ship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Though Alzheimer’s is a frightening and powerful enemy, the promise of God is greater: nothing can separate those who are in Christ from the love and grace of God. Not the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s, not the memory impairment observed on psychological testing, not the behavioral problems, the aggression, confusion, or even the apparent forgetting of the Lord can separate us from him.
You may worry deeply about the faith of your loved one, but take deep comfort in knowing that when they turn toward the Lord, he runs toward them. We see this in the response of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. “But while he [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).” All of this happens before the son can even speak. It’s as if the father knows his son’s heart and is ready to take him back.
Those with dementia need not speak. Not even the disease’s ravages can separate us from God’s radical grace and love. We don’t really know what turning to him looks like in deep dementia, but we can know that God doesn’t require that we have the right words. He looks at what is within, at the heart. We may never know how the person hears him, whether as a still, small voice or gentle whisper deep within (1 Kings 19:12) or as a bright blinding light (Acts 9:3). Some mysteries will never be solved before we reach heaven and meet him face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12). But while we wait, God asks us to remember his promises and his presence, so that we can experience his peace that surpasses all understanding.
One caregiver shared this account with me recently:
During my last visit, I was seeking God with questions: “Can she [mother] access you? Can she access her long-held faith? Can she receive comfort from you, Lord?” Her social skills have deteriorated such that we don’t have much of a two-sided conversation. “Can she converse with you and share her fears, needs — things she can’t share with me anymore?” God graciously reminded me that relating to him is not dependent on her ability to access him. His ability to connect with her is unchanged. Do I not believe that the creator and sustainer of the universe is creative enough to be able to cut through her fog and relate to her personally? As she napped (something she does a lot of these days) I prayed that God’s presence would fill her living space. And then I asked him, “What about her last moments? What if she is afraid…?”
In that moment, God answered me: “I’ll be here with her, and she will know it. Have no fear.”
Has a gospel helped you or a loved one through an Alzheimer’s diagnosis? Do you have any tips for our readers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.