Here’s the good news:  we’re living longer these days.

Here’s the bad news:  we’re living longer these days.

Amazing advances in medicine and technology have helped extend life expectancy for both men and women in the Western world. Yet as our physical bodies now last longer than those of our grandparents, we’re discovering that our mental abilities sometimes struggle to keep pace.

Dementia has emerged as not simply a quirky affliction, but an alarming trend whose spectrum ranges from senility to Alzheimer’s disease, as fearsome an illness as cancer.

And just like cancer, Alzheimer’s is beginning to show up in younger and younger people. Unlike cancer, however, dementia in general and Alzheimer’s in particular have no cure. Just some medicines that help slow down their onset.

Realities of Memory Care

Increasingly, family members are having to band together to develop strategies for coping with a parent or other loved one who has been diagnosed with some form of dementia. I know, because mine is one of those families. Memory care, as it’s coming to be called, can get quite expensive. Even when families opt to care for a dementia patient at home, the time taken from work and other obligations can be significant.

Especially when the care is left for one person to shoulder.

Many spouses who care for their life partner now afflicted with dementia suddenly find themselves in the same situation as a single, never-married person, or a young divorced single with a small child. If their sex life hadn’t already evaporated due to age, it is definitely over now. Letting the patient drive alone, even on quick errands? Out of the question. Asking the patient for advice regarding even an insignificant decision? Usually a fruitless endeavor. Assuming the patient will remember something you said just one minute ago? Just asking for disappointment.

Life quickly shrinks down to the moment. When your loved one talks about things they want to do in the future, which is usually now either impossible or too dangerous for them, you just smile and nod to humor them, knowing that within a few minutes, they’ll have forgotten it. You can engage in quite animated conversations about things and people from long ago, but hopefully those engrained memories are pleasant for both of you.

Depending on your family dynamics, if your loved one with dementia lives alone, your married relatives may assume that as a single person yourself, you’d be the ideal candidate to assume the majority of your loved one’s care. And maybe you’d be OK with that.

However, it may not be wise to assume that your marital status has any bearing on your ability to take care of somebody with dementia. At least, not by yourself.

Caring for dementia patients can be surprisingly demanding. Perhaps not physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, you’ll likely find the experience exhausting and discouraging. Just as a spouse who becomes the main caretaker for their dementia-ridden partner can end up running on sheer grit and faith, so a single adult can wear down to the point of minimum functionality.

It’s before you get to this point that you’ll need to marshal reserves, whether from your immediate family, extended relatives, church, or community social agencies. Like most things, the task of caring for a loved one with dementia is usually more sustainable and effective when more than one person shares the load.

Fortunately, some churches have begun to realize our burgeoning crisis in memory care, and are working toward establishing caregiver networks and support groups, sometimes hosting meetings with guest speakers who are experts in elder care. Of course, just knowing there are other people struggling with the same things you are can be helpful.

Depending on your family dynamics, it may also help—at least for appearance’s sake—for a married couple to assume considerations like medical and legal powers of attorney. Having a single person unilaterally in charge of your loved one’s affairs could provoke needless strife among other relatives. Money and power have been known to bring out less than the best in families during such stressful times. Now is not the time to take offense if your family doesn’t want you in charge because of your singlehood.

Seeing God’s Sovereignty

Remember, whether your loved one is suffering from mild dementia or full-blown Alzheimer’s, their condition will not improve. Things will only get worse. It’s literally all downhill from here in terms of their memory. Sure, as believers in Christ, we know that he can work miracles, but in these types of cases, his answer most likely will be “not this time.”

Not that there won’t be some nice diversions along the way, however. Every now and then, your loved one may comment on something that you’re sure they’d have forgotten. They may use an unusual word in the proper context, or comment on current affairs like they’ve memorized CNN’s home page. But don’t let these moments of lucidity tempt you into thinking things are getting better. Just enjoy them for what they are.

Does this sound entirely too negative and scary? It’s not intended to be. Realistic and blunt, yes, but not pessimistic. One of the major lessons you and your family may learn is how valuable time is. Sure, you may already lead a hectic life, and wonder how you’ll be able to accommodate elder care with all of your other responsibilities. Yet being forced to slow down and walk—literally and figuratively—with your dementia patient may help you develop new ways of prioritizing your time. After a while, things that used to seem so important now don’t. As you have to let some things slide from your schedule so you have enough time for your patient, you’ll realize how life continues to march along well enough without that thing you used to think was so urgent.

Some people call dementia “the long goodbye.” And indeed, it is. So caregivers need to pace themselves while providing good care. This is another reason why it’s not a good idea to necessarily assume a single person is automatically the best choice as the primary caregiver.

You may surprise yourself by learning to appreciate each day more, not for what it can do for you, or even what you can do in it. But for the time that God has ordained for your loved one.

Why does God allow people to lose their mental faculties, anyway? What good are people who can’t think or remember?

In his sovereignty, God has a purpose for your loved one, and it obviously doesn’t have much to do with how they can manipulate and store information in their brain. Abilities that ordinarily, we prize in people.

The same sovereignty God exhibits in the life of dementia patients is the sovereignty that he uses in all of our lives and experiences. Whether it makes sense to us at the time or not.

Sometimes, trusting in God is the only way you’ll make it through days of caring for your loved one with dementia.

And might that be exactly the way God wants it? Dependence upon him, and nobody and nothing else.

 

From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.