“Come on, Pastor, it’s time to go home.”
“Mm Hmm. Alright, that’s good. I’m doin’ just fine here.”
One of the daily rituals from my ministry this summer was the repeated struggle to convince the former Protestant pastor to get up out of his chair. Sometimes it wouldn’t be too bad, and he would get right up and follow us to join the rest of the clients of the adult day center for lunch or activities or to catch his bus home. On other days, though, he was an immovable object: none of the usual tricks, such as mentioning his family, would work. The staff would go so far as to ask him to “preach the good word” and sing gospel revival songs to stir him, but sometimes to no effect.
The pastor is just one of the many remarkable clients of the center. It serves those who still live with a spouse or children in their retirement, yet need a safe environment during the day. They are doctors and lawyers, professors and policemen, housewives and blue-collar workers. While some of the clients were confined to a wheelchair or had other physical handicaps, most, like the pastor, were able to walk without assistance and eat without help. They found themselves at the center, not because they could no longer trust their bodies, but because they could no longer trust their minds. The onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive disorders meant that they might not remember to take necessary medications or feed themselves, or simply not wander away from home. The staff of the center provides wonderful, attentive care for these elderly clients, as well as an environment where they can be active and engaged during the day. The families of the center’s clients were appreciative of the care provided, but one can still sense the difficulty of caring for a loved one who no longer responds or recognizes them anymore.
When a loved one suffers a physical trauma or a drastic change in his or her body, we still recognize them as the same person—albeit with a new difficulty to face. If someone were to lose a leg, for example, or even just suffer the effects of aging, we can still know his mind and personality. The effects of mental illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s are invidious in other ways: though their appearance often remains the same, they now seem lost to us more profoundly. They begin to forget where they are or what they are doing. It becomes difficult to carry on a conversation, and to see the person we love shine through the fog. Most troubling to us, they may begin to forget who we are, the people they have known and loved. There can be a sense of embarrassment that they no longer are acting like the people we remember, and sometimes begin to act almost like little children, responding impulsively and without restraint. Our fond memories are constantly replaced by ones of difficulty and confusion, and it can feel like we are losing not only our loved one, but even our memories of them.
As we become better at caring for the body and extending lifespans, these cognitive disorders are becoming more common. Yet, while we may understand them better today, they are not completely new. St. Albert the Great was one of the foremost scholars of the thirteenth century, an authority on the natural sciences and on theology, and recognized today as a Doctor of the Church. A great thinker and teacher, he also had a remarkably long life for his day, living at least into his late seventies, and perhaps into his late eighties. As amazing as his intellect was, in his later years, it seems like he lost it all. All of his contemporary biographers refer to some kind of dementia that developed in his last few years. No longer able to carry on the preaching and teaching that had defined his life, he was reduced to the life of a simple friar. Discussion of the grace with which he faced his last years is often seen in the light of our Lord’s words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Not all of us will live out this passage in this particular way. While it can be difficult to see those we love and looked up to seemingly becoming like “little children” once more, we must not forget that the grace of God is still working in their hearts. We pray that this grace acts in our hearts as well, as we know and love those who suffer these trials, so that we might be with them, healthy and whole, in the kingdom of heaven.
Image: Abraham van Strij, Sitting old man waiting in hall