Reflections from a Chaplain's Office

My chaplain office sits in the busy hub of a complex care seniors’ community. My office door opens into a busy hallway and dining room where family and friends regularly pass by on their way to visit loved ones. These visitors come faithfully, even if their loved ones no longer recognize them.

I see the stress and sense of futility they sometimes feel. Their loved ones forget their names and even walk away when they visit. As a result, some feel hurt, while others bury their feelings under the sense of duty.

A younger male resident walks past my door almost daily with a strong and confident pace. We might not even notice his plight at first, at least not until he speaks. “My brain is broken, but I will always be me”, he repeats to himself, reinforcing his ongoing worth as a person even with a diagnosed dementia. His words remind me that any compassionate response to dementia must begin with a clear and grounded grasp of what it means to be human.

These residents cling to the truth that “I am still a person with dignity, memories, values and passions”…even if I cannot tell you.

With these daily encounters outside my office door, I noted with deep interest when a popular televangelist accepted live online phone calls from his listeners on random issues, including dementia.

One phone caller stated that his friend’s wife had advanced dementia. He added, “My friend’s wife, formerly loved and engaging, is ‘gone’ and no longer ‘there’.” The caller added that the distraught husband is angry with God and has begun seeing another woman. The caller wanted advice from the tele-evangelist on how to counsel the desperate husband whose wife was no longer “there”.

What options do remain for those whose lifelong married partner has been trapped in some form of dementia? From his brightly lit television studio, the evangelist appropriately expressed deep sympathy for the husband. Then, he went on to recommend that the husband actually divorce his wife.

“Of course”, he added, “the husband still needed to ensure that she had good ongoing care after he left.” The tele-evangelist rationalized that dementia is a form of death and the man should be free to remarry. After all she is “no longer there.” She can no longer meet his needs nor share in his life.

His answer stunned me! I thought about all those who pass by my chaplain office and imagined what would be their reaction if I stepped out and declared, “Leave your loved ones with us and get on with your lives!”

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