They said he was born lucky. His body grew tall and strong, and he excelled in sports. His mind was quick, and he learned effortlessly. People liked him, and he progressed easily in business. He married his high school sweetheart and their children were their pride and joy. His business did well, and others asked his advice, took it, and thanked him for it later. Then things changed.
He became forgetful. He missed appointments and one day couldn’t find his office. It became evident something was wrong, and his partners eased him into early retirement. The doctors said he had early onset dementia. After a car crash, he lost his driver’s license. He began to forget his children’s names, and the neighbours pitied him. One day, his wife found him sitting on the floor, his pant legs wet with urine, his car keys in his hands. She sank down beside him, and they both wept.
This weeping couple presents a not uncommon picture of the pain and apparent injustice of losing all that is meaningful because of dementia – the seeming absence of hope and restoration. The Old Testament also speaks of this kind of loss and hopelessness. The people of Jerusalem experienced nearly complete devastation following their defeat to the Babylonians in 587 BC. Their city and temple were destroyed, and most of Judah’s inhabitants were sent into exile.
The cries of those left behind are recorded in the book of Lamentations. However, there is a significant difference between the mourning couple in our story and the mourning of the people of Judah and Jerusalem following their war with Babylon. The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel are filled with unrelenting warnings that God had given up on the Israelites as they continued to break the terms of the covenant. Because of their arrogance and sinfulness, they were held responsible by God for the destruction of their city, their country, their political, economic, and social systems and the eventual threat to their very survival. They were to blame, and God had finally turned against them.
Not so the man with dementia and his wife. There is no blame associated with their overwhelming loss. But, like the poet who wrote Lamentations, they also cry out with no evident answer to their dilemma. These people, those of vanquished Jerusalem and the modern man with dementia and his wife – lament.
The lamentations of God’s people have a place in scripture – in the book of Job, in the Psalms of lament, and in the book of Lamentations itself. In the New Testament, these cries are echoed by Jesus during his crucifixion. Pain and loss without apparent hope are real. Scripture testifies to this and confirms that crying out is a necessary and legitimate thing to do, even when it is not clear that God hears or is even listening.
In the five chapters of the book of Lamentations, the poet-writer spares us no details about the conditions in the city following its destruction. Young women have been violated, young men have been brutally killed, the priests sit in dust in the streets, their temple destroyed. Children go hungry, staggering under the weight of heavy loads of wood. Some are eventually cannibalized. We are spared no details. As Christopher Wright writes in The Message of Lamentations, “But Lamentations simply makes us listen to the voices of the sufferers – in the profusion and confusion of their pain… And if in the midst of these voices there is accusation against God, Lamentations lets us hear that too.”
However, in the third and middle chapter of the book of Lamentations, there is a suggestion of hope – a reminder of God’s eternal goodness:
“Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:21–24, NIV)
The situation does not change, but the poet’s perspective shifts. The poet looks to God, and although his prayer for deliverance is not answered by the end of the book, he is still reminded of God’s faithfulness and abiding love.
As Christians living our faith, we are led to hope. We have evidence that God never gives up on us through the New Testament’s story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the promise of our salvation. As Christ’s servants, we can also serve as a reminder to others of God’s continuing love and concern for each of us.
For the man with dementia, there is no cure. However, as Mary Holmen, Pastor of Parish Caring Ministries at St. Peter’s, Winnipeg, reminded me, a lack of cure does not mean an absence of healing. As members of Christ’s church, we can develop the skills to serve as healers (and helpers) for those with dementia and their families. We don’t need to study medicine or become psychologists. Instead, we can learn appropriate communication skills so that we are comfortable speaking with persons with impaired cognition. They can cry out their lament, and we will know how to listen and acknowledge their pain. We will know how to enable the person with impaired cognition and communication abilities to tell their life stories, and relive past accomplishments and good times, while rejoicing in a present, however fleeting, moment of remembering.
We can also become helpers. As Beth Helliar of the Alzheimer Society, and a member of Church of the Way in Winnipeg puts it, we can become “the hands and feet of Jesus” by offering to perform simple tasks such as taking a person with dementia for a walk, helping an elderly caregiver with household tasks or helping them complete application forms and other paperwork.
The paradox is that we in turn are blessed. I am an occupational therapist, who worked for many years with persons with dementia. Some of my best moments were spent listening to these remarkable people and acknowledging their remaining abilities and courage. There is little to compare with the affirmation of someone with severe dementia voluntarily reaching out and taking your hand. We encounter the love of God through such gestures if we learn how to stop, how to speak, and most importantly, how to listen.
You can learn to be a communicator and helper for persons with dementia and their families by contacting the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba. You are also invited to attend a workshop, “Dialogues in Dementia: Personal concerns and experiences along the journey,” which will be held at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in February 2020.
Lynda Wolf is a non-practising occupational therapist and a member of the parish of St. Peter’s Anglican Church.