November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregiver Month. As the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s diseases continues to surge, our systems of care have struggled to meet the need. After the initial diagnosis, care often moves out of the doctor’s office and into the community—giving Christians and churches both the challenge and opportunity of responding to this question: How can I love my neighbor with dementia?
We can start by learning about Alzheimer’s disease and build upon that by living out the gospel in their care. Here are 10 things to remember about Alzheimer’s and caregiving.
- Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, and there is no cure. The memory problems only get worse and eventually other functions of the brain are affected including judgment, decision-making, communication and problem solving.
- Not surprisingly, Alzheimer’s is one of the most feared medical conditions among older people and many baby boomers.
- People with Alzheimer’s disease and the family members who care for them (caregivers) experience the pain of Alzheimer’s disease differently but equally. Many caregivers feel a mix of weariness, burden, depression and grief. We should care for both the person diagnosed and their caregivers.
- People with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias continue to feel the same spiritual and emotional needs as the rest of us. They have need for faith, hope and love. Indeed, perhaps their greatest need is love.
- Loneliness is one of the major challenges of Alzheimer’s disease. Even when your loved ones can no longer remember your name, they still need your friendship and presence in their lives.
- Many caregivers report feeling abandoned by their church families. Once they are unable to get to church on Sunday, they can feel forgotten. One pastor noted, “Sometimes I think the church has an Alzheimer’s of it’s own,” referring to our tendency to forget those who are no longer present on Sunday. Many caregivers long for the church to journey with them through this difficult stage of life. Stay present. Check in. Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide you as you listen and care for them.
- Many pastors feel ill-equipped to address the unique challenges of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. They often tell me that seminary has not prepared them for this aspect of ministry.
- People with Alzheimer’s disease often (but not always) respond to well-known rhythms of faith, including songs and hymns that they have known for decades. Familiar prayers and favorite scripture passages can also prompt remembering God and their story of faith. When we help initiate these activities, they have the opportunity to respond, even if only in the moment. These moments matter, even if they are later forgotten.
- Even a progressive neurological condition like Alzheimer’s disease cannot separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
- Though people with Alzheimer’s disease may sometimes seem to forget God, he will never forget them. His remembrance of us is never dependent upon what we do or remember. We can take hope that he has their name graven on his hands, he knows their thoughts completely, and even when they cannot speak, the Holy Spirit intercedes for them in prayers beyond words. What a great God, that even when we are unable to speak and others no longer understand us, he knows our thoughts, understands the very core of our being, and responds in grace and love with prayers on our behalf!
- Jesus promises that whatever we do for the least of these brothers and sister in Christ, we have done for him. Even the seemingly smallest efforts to care for people with dementia and their caregivers in love and mercy will not go unnoticed and will not be forgotten.
Let’s take time to pray on behalf of people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers this month. Pray not only that God will meet them and provide for them in the difficulty, confusion, and weariness, but also that we will better know how to graciously step in to love and minister to our neighbors affected by this condition.