Article  Life  Human Dignity  Sanctity of Life

Alzheimer’s, human dignity, and a church that’s truly pro-life

You can tell a lot about people by watching how they treat those who can’t articulate, defend, drive, bathe themselves, or even comb their hair.

I’ve never seen a more pro-life group of people than those at a West Tennessee church down on Main Street. No one from the church went to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life Rally. They don’t picket outside abortion clinics. They don’t preach and write proclamations about the evils of abortion. They believe babies should be born, but for them, that’s not the whole picture of being pro-life. One way they demonstrate this is in how they love Frank.

Frank, a 75-year-old man, has been a member of the church for about 10 years, along with his wife. Several years ago, he started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s been mostly downhill ever since. He is one of more than five million Americans living with the disease. With each passing day, Frank knows and remembers less. He’s slowly slipping away from everyone. Like Nancy Reagan once said, it’s like experiencing a long goodbye.

Frank consistently makes his rounds on Sunday mornings during the service’s greeting time. He says, “Good morning,” “Glad you’re here,” and “God bless you.” It’s obvious that he’s glad to be there and see everyone. He remembers which pew is his, but he can’t remember his phone number or how to get home after church. When he talks, he doesn’t make sense. He says words, but they aren’t related to each other; they’re strung together in a series of meaningless jabber.  

Once a month, the men gather for a prayer breakfast. And Frank is always there. Everyone is kind to him. One week, as the men were sharing, Frank spoke up and said, “I’ve got something to say.” He stood, looked at the group, and started talking. Nothing he said made sense. As he does when he’s talking to someone one-on-one, Frank started putting unrelated words together; it was just meaningless chatter.  

The men around the table leaned in. They looked at Frank in the eyes. It was hard to listen, but everyone listened well. No one tried to stop him. He probably only spoke for a minute or two, but it seemed like an eternity. After he finished, the other men around the table immediately started affirming Frank. They spoke of how thankful they were for him. They told him he was a good man. They talked about how the church wouldn’t be the church that it was if it weren’t for him. They told him they loved him.

Valuing a human being

It was a powerful moment. It was the church being the church. It was the church being pro-life, valuing a human being regardless of what he could bring to the table. The people in that church recognize that all people have inherent value because they have been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). They treat Frank with dignity and respect, not because of any ability he has— he’s losing his abilities—but because he is a human being.

The number of people in America who have Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple to over 16 million people by 2050. Church communities are not immune to this disease, and it’s only going to become more prominent in our churches. This means that the church must be ready to minister to those with Alzheimer’s and their families.

The Southern Baptist Convention unanimously approved a resolution in 2016 titled “On Alzheimer's Disease And Dementia, Caregiving, And The Church.” The resolution acknowledges this issue and that there is no cure. Southern Baptists collectively said,

God calls us to care for the most vulnerable among us, including those who are unable to remember or speak for themselves (Isa. 58:1-14; Zech. 7:8-10; James 1:27); and . . . All people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and this status as image bearers does not depend upon cognitive or intellectual ability, because all people, including those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, have value and are loved by God.  

My favorite line of the resolution is when Southern Baptists state, “RESOLVED, That we urge our churches to treat people with Alzheimer’s and dementia with dignity and continue to invite them into the life of the church, rehearsing the good news of the Gospel together, singing familiar songs and hymns, reading Scripture together, and praying together, including well-known prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer.”

The way we treat those with Alzheimer’s is about the mission of the church. Alzheimer’s disease is yet another evidence of the fact that we live in a world that is fallen. A day is coming when Jesus will make all things new, and this horrific disease will be a thing of the past. Until then, we work and love and proclaim the gospel until he comes. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

People will continue to gather at that West Tennessee church every Sunday. Everyone will worship again. There will be the time in the service for greeting one another. Frank will be there. He will wander through the crowd during the Sunday morning worship service and tell folks, “Good morning,” and, “Glad you’re here,” and, “God bless you.” He will have conversations with people that make no sense, yet they will be kind to him. They will love him. They will value him—because their commitment to one another and to being pro-life will show in the way they treat Frank.

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