The question posed to the television evangelist by the distraught husband pleads for a thoughtful response. Can or should the husband divorce his wife who is ridden with dementia and supposedly “no longer there”?
Frankly, a similar ethical question could be asked by anyone whose loved one experiences any disease such as cancer, stroke and other debilitating, even fatal, illness. Are these spouses also free to “move on” even as their loved one struggles with life threatening disease? The question is vital on many levels.
In my role as chaplain, I've worked in both federal prisons and seniors homes, where everyone I met reminds me that we are ALL created in the image of God. The Biblical record supports this truth adamantly and to this subject I now turn our attention. Please stay with me over the next few paragraphs.
In the opening chapters of Genesis, God stated that He created man and woman “in His image” (e.g. Genesis 1: 27). Even after the Fall of Adam into sin, God warns in Genesis 9:6 that taking another person’s life-even a murderer- for any purpose will bring retribution because God has made all humans in His image (Genesis 9:6). Yes even a murderer!
Theologians call this concept the “imago dei” or “the image of God”. Whatever else this term implies (and there are various views) the “imago dei” clearly sets humans apart from the remainder of creation, including animals.
Humans alone have a God given dignity that includes the ability to ask questions about our past, present and future. Humans alone have the freedom to make choices, to reason and to respond. Humans alone have the distinct ability to choose or reject a relationship with God.
In fact, even when a resident in my home can no longer seem to ask meaningful questions, engage in conversation or make wise choices, they remain in the image of God with inestimable worth. The Apostle Paul stated, “In Him we live and move and have our very existence".
It's possible that most of the family members who pass by my office may not know about “the image of God” and its impact on our reason for caring for those in the throes of dementia.
Shared Image and Shared Memory
My wife and I remember our wedding day and other life events somewhat differently...hers admittedly often more reliable. We share our memories of life together. Neither of us struggle with dementia, but we still need each other to collectively remember life’s events. Candidly, I remember only a portion of my entire life, even though the details of each experience are buried deeply within the neurons of my brain.
Granted there is a dramatic difference between my partial and sometimes lapsed memories and the debilitating loss of memory experienced by an individual with some form of dementia.
Yet,we still all share the results of memory loss. Even the Eucharist (or Lord’s Table as some call it) has the express purpose of helping us to remember the Lord’s death til He comes. We have a tendency to forget even the most important sacred events of history. Memory is a shared process and even more so when one has dementia.
To illustrate, the other day I visited with a woman with advanced dementia. Her conversation was what we call “word salad”- a struggle to say something with an ever decreasing vocabulary all muddled in her mind. As she struggled to communicate, I simply affirmed her, “You were a good nurse who cared for people.”
She had a lengthy career as a nurse and she quickly brightened up when I brought this to her memory. Then for a short time she was able to collect words that spoke of her love for patients. We remembered her past together.
Another resident who happened to be a head nurse loved to walk around the community with our medical team and simply be present. She had sporadic memories of when she too served others. Our team members welcome her to come with them on rounds.
People with dementia need others to help them to remember their life story. We listen to their music, review their photos, read to them familiar stories and Bible passages. We do all this in order that they can live for this current moment- not tomorrow, not the past- just this moment in time. We come alongside them to enable them to live in the day.
To those loved ones who pass by my office daily, I offer these words. Keep coming as much as possible. To those who walk past my office with some form of dementia, they remind me, “I will always be me!”.
Around here we uphold that all are created in the image of God. Around here we live for this moment in time and help us to remember our past.