A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Faith in the Second Half conference at the Keswick Convention Centre. It was about the Christian view of dementia and the emphasis was on spiritual support for people living with the condition. All the seats in the seminar room were taken, as far as I could see, with everyone engaged and responsive. Heads nodded, faces were lit up and thoughtful. Much prayer had gone into the conference and the seminar, and I sensed the Holy Spirit there. Then at morning prayers the next day a brief chat with the man on my right showed a little of how He works in us, with or without dementia.
‘Thank you for your talk yesterday,’ said the man in the next seat, ‘I liked it very much.’ Then after a pause, ‘I feel affirmed.’ ‘Are you looking after someone with dementia, or supporting someone who is?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘I don’t have dementia anywhere in my life at the moment. I just feel affirmed in myself.’ We didn’t have time to continue as everyone was moving away, so I left wondering how someone could listen to a talk on dementia and feel affirmed in his spirit. Then I remembered how, in the days when we used to organise conferences in churches for their congregation and others in the neighbourhood, we would receive similar comments afterwards, as well as appreciation for the topics covered. One email read, ‘After attending a conference on dementia it seems strange to say that we are leaving with a feeling of joy.’
Dementia is not the most uplifting subject – so what accounts for the affirmation and the joy? Perhaps it is that as we unpack different aspects of living with it, we see beyond the physical to how we are made in the image of God, the Triune God. We are much more than the sum of our earthly parts and the real us, the essence of who we are, is not touched by dementia. The brain, the physical part may not be working, and the person loses the ability to make sense of the world and to make sense to the world, but the Holy Spirit deep within the spirit of the believer with dementia (John 14: 16), comforts in ways we don’t understand.
Sometimes the person ‘reappears’ and comes through the fog for a while. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘rementing’, and there is no medical explanation for it. It often happens in quite deep dementia. A pastor who had been silent and withdrawn for many months suddenly spoke and told his daughter that in those months God had been speaking to him, and had given him a specific Scripture verse. His daughter said that it helped him come to terms with his losses and be at peace.
It’s also known that people with dementia can come to faith. One of my friends faithfully visited her step mother-in-law who was living with dementia. Sometimes she would not respond but on other occasions would be present for a time. One day, prompted by the Holy Spirit, my friend told her about Jesus, and her mother in law asked Him into her life. For weeks afterwards my friend received phone calls from relatives and friends asking, ‘what’s happened to Amelia? She’s so peaceful and kind!’ Amelia had been a troubled lady, but the Holy Spirit brought her peace. Others have told of similar experiences.
The pioneer in understanding dementia and caring for people living with it, Professor Tom Kitwood of Bradford University, said that the phenomenon of rementing meant that ‘some of the most cherished tenets of the standard paradigm are challenged. The implication is that even a brain which is carrying severe pathology may have more reserve and flexibility than is commonly assured.’ (Dementia Reconsidered, 1997, OUP). But it seems to me that the challenge is in recognising how we really are: the brain is the interface between the person and the world, and even when it is damaged, the person remains.
One day we will step out of these ‘earthly tents’, as the apostle Paul describes our physical bodies, into eternity where we won’t be relying on faulty brain mechanisms, and we will see how we really are. In the meantime, dementia reveals so much of God’s design and care for us frail human beings. Seeing this is affirming, and does bring us joy.