Article May 19, 2014

Caring for a parent with dementia

It was late at night after a long day when I received a call from my older brother informing me that my father was at the emergency room. My father had hoped to retrieve old office items that had been in a storage shed for six and a half years.

The last time I saw my father was six and a half years ago in that exact office he no longer used. On Father’s Day (2012), one month before my brother’s phone call, the Lord placed it heavy on my heart to pray and intercede for my dad. As tears streamed from my eyes, little did I know the Lord would bring my dad back to Seattle so soon. While I was shocked on that day, July 18, 2012, to get a call from my brother informing me of my father's dementia, I was at peace as I spoke to my father on the phone for the first time in six and a half years. I choked back tears, asking, “Do you know who this is?” “Yes, I do,” dad said, "it’s my son David.”

Whenever I share this story of my father's dementia, I usually I get the response, “I’m so sorry to hear that and I will pray for you.” My family and I greatly appreciate this. Often, people want to their experience of a family member or friend going through a mental illness. I also appreciate these responses since they encourage and help me. In this article, I want to share how I handle caring for a parent with dementia. I’d like to make it clear upfront that I’m not an expert in dementia care. I’m a theologian, not a psychologist. It is my prayer that as I share thoughts based on my experience, God might use my situation to help you through your own time of need.

Over the past two years I’ve learned the best way to deal with a parent with dementia is to have a proper perspective based on the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8, “Think on what is noble and pure.” Honestly, thinking on what is noble and pure is hard in light of the devastating effects of such a debilitating disease as  dementia. Thinking about what dementia will do to my dad causes me to tear up. Perhaps your family member has cancer or another devastating disease. Thankfully, there is coming a day when, the Bible declares, Jesus will wipe away every tear from every eye. I encourage you to feel however you need to feel in the meantime.

Scripture teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a man, Jesus experienced the full range of emotions and yet never sinned. He was tempted in every way but did not sin. I don’t know about you, but this is what causes me to worship Jesus all the more. When I struggle with my dad’s dementia, I reflect on who Jesus is and His character, which changes my perspective. Rather than being down and glum, my mood changes to one of thankfulness that my dad is still alive, that I can speak to him.

With that said, I would like to share a few things to hopefully help you deal with and care for a parent with dementia.

First, have a regular time in God’s Word, prayer and private worship.

Second, find a solid Bible-believing church and enroll in a small group. My small group regularly prays for my dad and asks how I’m doing. This is important. Letting people get close to you can be scary, but as Christians we are called to love one another. The group knows me well enough to know when I’m struggling.

Third, find godly friends who will encourage you. It is essential to find Christians not engaged with your local church. If you blog, connect with people through comments and emails. Get to know other bloggers. I always enjoy getting to know my readers and hearing what the Lord is doing in and through their lives.

All these things keep my focus on the gospel rather than myself, enabling me to have a posture of servitude toward God and those he places in my life.

I don’t know where you are in your own journey with Christ, or whether you or a family member suffer from dementia or another  serious illness. This might sound weird, but I’m thankful for my dad’s dementia.

The Lord has used my dad’s dementia to soften my heart towards himself, humble me and grow me in God’s grace. While experiencing the fires of affliction, we most clearly see the beauty, wonder and glory of the cross of Christ. We have a suffering Savior who knows and understands our every feeling and experience.

He invites us to boldly come before his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16), which is what I encourage you to do. Daily trust and honor the Lord, who will empower you to serve himself and others, and enable you to deal with whatever life throws your way.