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Dementia and the Christian Mind

By Jack Sharpe, PPL Board Member

The diagnosis and treatment of dementia has become a modern existential crisis. It affects mind and body and, for loved ones, creates a dilemma for how to respond to the person so diagnosed. The purpose of this essay is to spark discussion of how Christians should look at the person with dementia from a Biblical viewpoint rather than from the common modern secular humanist viewpoint based on utilitarian principles. Too often, modern society writes off people as less than human because they live in their world of dementia. For example, people will discuss the person with dementia as if they are not there.


A Christian ought to start from from the perspective of the Bible even though the Bible never specifically references dementia. Just because the Bible does not speak on a subject, however, does not mean it is  silent. The Bible starts with the fundamental principle that “man is made in the image of God”  (Genesis 1:31).  Imago Dei has shaped Christian thought since its beginning. What does it mean for a patient with dementia to be made and treated in the image of God?


Like every other human being, being created in God’s image means that his or her worth is based on his or her reflection of God’s nature and not on his or her utilitarian value or his or her perceived usefulness to others. Secular humanism tends to treat people according to their rational abilities. However, a Christian ought to see that God gives them value, not based on how society values their ability to reason, communicate or be “productive.” 


They have intrinsic worth because of Who made them and Whose they are, and not what they do.


Because of that we should strive to treat persons with dementia (and react around them) as if they are fully human despite perhaps their outward appearance. We should recognize that we do not fully understand what is in their mind.


I know a story confirmed by two witnesses that shows this perspective in operation. The two witnesses heard a call to visit the sick and decided that they would not prejudge who would know them or even recognize that they were there. One day, they called on an old saint, in his nineties, and apparently severely limited by his dementia. He had gone from a robust extrovert to an institutionalized introvert who seemed unaware of his surroundings.

 

They visited for a time without any intelligible response. As they were prepared to leave, as was their custom, they began to pray for the man. As they prayed out loud, he became alert and then began to pray out loud intelligibly, including prayers for each of them. As the prayer ended, he drifted back into apparent oblivion. Both of the visitors later said it had been one of the most poignant moments of their Christian walk. Had they taken a secular view and not visited because “he won’t know what is happening anyway,” they would have missed this revelation. To erase any doubt that God’s spirit was awakened within the dementia patient, he passed away the next day. He was sick and dying, but still fully human and able to function with the indwelling Spirit. Although to the undiscerning eye, he was not “human,” God was able to shine through him despite his frailties.


“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Perhaps this familiar verse from Hebrews extends our responsibilities to patients with dementia.

 

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