What should Christians know about Alzheimer’s Disease?

November 21, 2018

November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and Family Caregiver Month.

Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps the most challenging disease in modern life. It’s a major source of disability and leads to suffering for over 5 million Americans. To make matters worse, the number of people experiencing is expected to triple in the coming decades.  

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) develops gradually, typically starting with memory changes and eventually affecting other abilities like planning, problem solving, and communication. These changes ultimately lead to disability.  People with AD may have difficulty managing money and medication, driving a car, or living independently. At some point, a person will need help with more basic aspects of daily living including dressing, bathing, eating, and using the toilet. When a person becomes unable to care for themselves, they often lose the ability to offer input on their own lives. Many are overlooked, excluded, and some are even treated like children.

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t even have treatments that stop its progression. A recent analysis found that 99 percent of clinical trials of new medicines fail, and the last FDA approved medication for Alzheimer’s came on the market in 2003.  For those facing a diagnosis, things feel very hopeless. And from a medical perspective, there currently doesn’t seem to be much encouragement for people living with dementia.

What do we need to remember?

From a biblical perspective, however, we are a people called to hope. A biblical view of the person recognizes that all people have inherent value as created beings, who were made in the image of God (Gen.1:27) Because of our status as God’s children, we are to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of ability. Moreover, God instructs us to provide special care, concern, and protection of those who are vulnerable (Jam. 1:27; Isa. 58; Zech. 7:9-10)

As God’s people, we are called to remember him, and to hold to biblical truths about his relationship to his people, including those with dementia. This means that:

What can we do?

With these biblical truths in mind, what can we as the church do to show honor, love, and respect to our forgetful and confused neighbors and family members?  How can we specifically treat these members of our body with dignity? How can we help support the spiritual lives of people living with dementia?

We first need to recognize that people with Alzheimer’s have a range of needs that we can help address, whether emotional (comfort), physical (help with daily tasks around the house), or financial (providing aid, protection against financial exploitation).

People with AD also have spiritual needs. They need activities and disciplines that maintain their connection to their church family and remind them of God’s grace, love, and care. They need meaningful activity and a sense of purpose. For Christians with AD, this can be found in the biblical practices that the church has relied upon for centuries. When you visit or spend time with someone who has dementia, consider doing some of these things:  

Pray: Pray for people with Alzheimer’s and offer to pray with the person you know who has Alzheimer’s. It can be helpful to use well-known prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer, because these have been repeated many times and draw on different memory systems that are relatively spared in dementia.

Sing: Many people with Alzheimer’s connect with music. Familiar songs and hymns can be used to help people remember God’s goodness and faithfulness.

Read Scripture: Familiar Scripture passages are a powerful source of spiritual encouragement for all people, including those with dementia. These offer reminders of God’s promises and presence. Offer to read them to people with dementia, and invite them to read along if the passage is familiar (and if the person retains reading ability).

Tell stories of faith: These can include Bible stories and the person’s life story. Many people with dementia remember early parts of their life story well after they begin to show symptoms. Memory for important events from earlier in life (especially late adolescence and early adulthood) are sometimes spared and offer a way of connecting with a forgetful person.

Show love: Above all things, find opportunities to show love. Show kindness. Tell them they are loved and valued. Show appropriate affection.

Care for family caregivers: The church can also care for caregivers—those family members and friends who have acted in sacrificial love to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. This can be an incredibly difficult season of life that leads to exhaustion, stress, depression, fear, worry, and poor health. We can listen, mourn alongside, offer help, maintain contact, help find resources, and stay present in the lives of our caregiving brothers and sisters.

As Christians, we shouldn’t shy away from things we don’t understand or that are difficult. Alzheimer’s Disease is a prime example. Instead of pulling away, we should proactively love our brothers and sisters who are plagued with AD, pointing them to the promises of God and trusting that he will sustain them until the fog has been cleared once and for all.

If you are affect by AD, check out Dr. Mast’s most recent book Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel in Alzheimer’s Disease.

From the tiniest unborn life to the elderly at the end of life, from immigrants and refugees to those trafficked against their will, all life matters to God. Join the ERLC in Washington, D.C .on January 17-18, 2019, for Evangelicals for Life, one of the largest gatherings of pro-life Christians in the country. Speakers include Russell Moore, J.D. Greear, Steven Curtis Chapman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and more. Register now to join us!

Benjamin Mast

Dr. Benjamin Mast is a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville. He received his bachelor's degree in Psychology at Calvin College and went on to get his PhD from Wayne State University. Dr. Mast's research interests include dementia, late life depression, geriatric assessment, person-centered perspectives … Read More