[Below is the homily I delivered at an Awareness of Alzheimer’s Service held in the chapel of the retirement community where we live in recognition of Alzheimer’s Awareness.]
On a cold, rainy November day in 2009, Linda and I sat in the doctor’s office at Duke Medical Center awaiting the results of a series of neurological tests. The look on the faces of the doctor, nurse, and social worker foretold the somberness of the news.
With pathos in his voice and moisture in his eyes, the doctor said, “All the tests indicate that you, Mrs. Carder, have Frontotemperal Dementia.” There was that dreaded but suspected word “Dementia.”
Life hasn’t been the same since! Every aspect of our lives was altered—location, vocation, relationships, finances, and even how we understand ourselves, others, and God. The journey of “the long goodbye” confronts those on the journey with demanding challenges and perilous threats.
Little wonder that “dementia” has surpassed cancer as our most dreaded disease. It erases our past, transforms even family members into strangers, threatens our identity and sense of worth, and robs us of our capacities to think coherently and act decisively; and it cuts us off from community, thereby marginalizing and relegating us to a kind of exile.
Our family has lived with dementia for ten years. We know its devastation firsthand and experience it every moment of every day. I would not minimize the anguish involved, nor deny the relentless grief it entails.
But the awareness of Alzheimer’s and other dementias has deepened my awareness of two core affirmations of our faith. Let’s be aware of these affirmations as we remember those who live with these dreaded diseases called “dementia.”
One, our identity and worth and dignity do not lie in our individual memory, our intellect, or our capacities. We live in a hyper-rational, intellectual society that places primary value on productivity. Our sense of worth is derived from what we know, what we can produce.
We have bought into the Cartesian notion, “I think therefore I am.” Dementia relentlessly confounds our thinking and strips away our capacity to produce. But, it does not diminish our identity, our in worth, our dignity.
Our identity, worth, and dignity lie in the One to whom we belong, the one who breathed into us the divine spirit, nephish, stamped the divine image upon us, and redeemed us in Jesus Christ.
A Hebrew prophet of the Exile, declared “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine“ (Isaiah 43:1).
We may forget who we are, but God does not forget us. We may forget God, but God has engravened us on the palm of His hands!
The author of First John states it clearly: “See what love the Father has for us that we should be called children of God. Beloved, that’s who we are! We are God’s children now! It does not yet appear what we shall be, but when he appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).
Our worth, identity, dignity and destiny are derived from this: We are created by God out of love, we bear the divine image, and we have been redeemed in Jesus Christ!
When Alzheimer’s or other dementia causes us to forget who we are, it is our responsibility as community and family to hold one another’s identity. We do so by treating those with dementia with the utmost respect, compassion, attentiveness, accepting their gifts, knowing their stories, loving them for who they are now and not simply for who they have been.
That’s the second affirmation I’ve had reinforced by living with dementia for a decade: The purpose of human existence is to share in the Triune God’s dance of love. After all we were created out of love and sustained by love.
Love really is the only thing that endures. In the Apostle Paul’s hymn to love, he reminds us that knowledge passes away, tongues (language) ceases, but love never ends. He further declares in Romans that nothing in all creation, and that includes dementia, can separate us from God’s love.
Linda has lost all recollection of our 57 years of marriage and she only occasionally recognizes me.
I often wonder if she knows that I love her. I assure her throughout the day with caresses of her face, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, feeding her, seeing that she is cared for respectfully and with dignity. I operate with this manta: When in doubt, love!
I know this for certain: Linda has expanded my capacity to love without expectations or reciprocity. Still, there are those moments of deep connection when her love breaks through her confusion and incoherent speech. Sometimes it’s a squeeze of the hand, a momentary twinkle in the eye, a fleeting smile.
And, occasionally there comes, seemingly out of nowhere, a verbal response. Yesterday morning as I was feeding her, I looked into her eyes and said, “Linda, I love you!” With unexpected clarity, she responded, “That’s so good!” That’ll do me for several days!
One of the nurses who has cared for Linda the last four years remarked during a recent visit, “Linda has been loved to life!”
We all have been loved to life! It is our great privilege and divine calling to love one another to life! After all we are persistently loved to life by God!
As we love the most frail and vulnerable, those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, we are fulfilling the commandment Jesus gave his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you!”
And, we are bearing witness to the Transcendent Love in which we live and move and have our being