A few days ago I took my mother in-law to an appointment with her doctor and found the trip to be more disheartening than I expected. Sporadically, as we drove her fragile and confused voice would break the silence in my car by asking, “Is it morning or night?” I answered, “It’s four in the afternoon, Barb.” During our twenty-minute drive she asked me this same question many times. Trying to distract her I commented on what a beautiful summer afternoon it was. She agreed it was beautiful, but wanted to know if we were going home. “No, we’re going to the doctor” I answer, again. “Ok” she says as if hearing this for the first time. My heart breaks.
Glancing over at her I observe a small and fragile figure that is as brittle as her voice. She is just a fragment of the robust women I once knew. The years have been unkind leaving her shrunken and hunched, a miniature of her old self. She is so small you can barely see her white head over the dashboard. Her skin is parchment paper-thin and covered with bruises from falling or running into walls with her walker. When reminded that she needs to ask for assistance she replies, “I’m so disgusted at myself for falling.” I employ our standard reply, “You need to wait for the helpers to come get you out of bed, or help you to the bathroom.” To this logic she says, “I’m so disgusted with myself.” And the circular conversation continues but we can’t step off because, “what if she remembers, just once.” The merry-go-round keeps spinning and we’re holding on to the rail for all we’re worth.
I know the above snippet of a story is common to my generation. Many of us are dealing with the joys and pains of assisting elderly parents. It’s painful to see their once creative and sharp minds unable to recognize if it’s morning or night. And the sorrow increases when they say things like “my brain in all jumbled up.” They know something is wrong; they know they’re missing a beat. Watching my in-laws progress from being self-sufficient and elderly to having seriously diminished capacity has me questioning God and His designing of the aging process. Why did He design humanity so that at the end of life, no matter how you’ve lived, your last years may be spent digressing from who you were to a shrunken familiar shell housing a fragment of that person.
I wonder if the soul of those suffering with Dementia or Alzheimer’s remains unaltered by these cruel diseases. Is their soul still able to commune with God even though their mind is stuck on memories from a life long ago? Is their soul at peace even though they fearfully ask the same questions over and over again; trying desperately to make sense out of the fog and confusion that now rules their brains? Or is their soul also in a state of confusion? I find myself frequently wondering, “God, what is the purpose of all this regression and loss?” I’ve asked God where in the progression of Dementia or Alzheimer’s can His love, kindness, and mercy be found.
Looking for answers I’ve google-searched and found some interesting ideas on the topic. Pastor Bruce Epperly wrote “still God has power in every situation. God’s intimate love sustains caregivers and loving friends for the long companionship with persons with Alzheimer’s. God’s inspiration awakens communities of care and invites us to see the divine in ourselves and others even when it is disguised by forgetfulness and incapacity.” And Billy Graham wrote, “The real issue, you see, isn’t why bad things happen, but how we should react to them. Will we react in anger and bitterness or will we respond in faith and trust? Anger is a dead-end road–it only hurts us and those around us, and doesn’t solve anything. But faith gives us hope–hope for the present and hope for the future.”
It is the writings of these great men that I’m holding on to because they help keep my focus on what is truly helpful for my loved ones. I can give them grace filled care while guarding my own spirit against bitterness. I can remain hopeful that God will not leave them even though their minds have left us.
It’s true, my questions haven’t been answered; they may not be answered until I’m in heaven. However, I’m willing to set them aside so I can use my energy on blessing my loved ones who are suffering.
Debora Shelford Hobbs
Matthew 28:20 Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Romans 8: 39 Not even the highest places or the lowest, or anything else in all creation can do that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from God’s love because of what Christ Jesus our Lord has done.
Isaiah 46:4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.