By Don Williams
“ Look on my right hand and see, for there is no one who acknowledges me; refuge has failed me. No man cares for my soul.” ––Psalm 142:4
I believe these are some of the saddest words found in the Bible. They suggest a feeling of despair and hopelessness. A person is in pain and looking for help, but he does not find it. He feels like no one cares.
In my 20 years of teaching grief support classes, both in the local communities where I have lived and in Grief Support Workshops within the brotherhood, there have been church members who have echoed this sentiment. They have sustained a loss of someone important to them, and they have felt a lack of support and care from their congregation. I know that many do care… they simply do not know what to do. Someone has well said, “Knowledge is power.” Church members could attend grief classes or read grief material to try and understand what goes on in the minds and hearts of those who lose a loved one.
But what happens if the person is still living, but is acting as if they are dead? What if, on the outside, they seem to be the same person they have always been, but the family is distressed because their loved one has developed Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia)?
Again, “Knowledge is power.” What is dementia? It is the permanent loss of multiple intellectual functions. It normally shows itself in a person having a loss of memory, confusion, problems with speech and understanding, changes in personality and behavior, and an increased reliance on others for the activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-70% of all cases. It is a disease that often attacks a person’s ability to remember things that just happened, in a matter of seconds or minutes. Long-term memory is often the last thing to leave an Alzheimer’s patient…thus, it is sometimes referred to as “Old-Timer’s Disease.” The average length that a person can have this illness (before death) is 8 – 10 years. There are various stages, with a person progressing to the point where they no longer can eat, do not know what to do, or cannot tell who someone is.
Consider These Facts:
- More than 5 million Americans are afflicted with AD. Every 33 seconds, someone is afflicted with this illness.
- It is suggested that 10% of Americans over 65 years of age will have AD and that 47% of people 85 years and older will suffer from dementia.
- Some 10 million family members take care of loved ones who suffer from AD.
- 55% of caregivers are spouses. 35% of caregivers are adult children, normally daughters and daughters-in-law.
- 75% of the primary caregivers for AD patients are women.
- Caregivers spend an average of 50-70 hours a week caring for their loved ones.
- Even those who work regular jobs put in an average of 40 hours a week caring for their loved ones.
- Half of the caregivers live with the Alzheimer’s patient.
- 70% of caregivers say they are reluctant to leave their loved ones, even for brief periods of time.
- The average length of time that caregivers will spend taking care of their loved ones is 6 years!
Putting this information all together, one can see that Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, permanent illness that can zap the strength of caregivers, causing emotional and physical illnesses, while they are busy trying to take care of their loved ones.
This disease has been called “the long goodbye” or “a living funeral.” It can be complicated by the fact that the patient looks normal on the outside and may appear normal in the few minutes you spend visiting with them. What visitors often do not understand is that the patient often forgets that the visitor ever came in the first place and that their behaviors and actions are often erratic and even sometimes dangerous.
Imagine that a family in your congregation is dealing with their “Daddy” who is suffering from this illness. He may have been one of your elders, or deacons, or Sunday school teachers. He can no longer recognize others (Agnosia), or understand what you mean when you speak to them (Aphasia.) The patient can no longer do little things, such as tying their shoes or bathing (Apraxia). The person can no longer remember what happened a few minutes ago (Amnesia) and their memory of the present and past is slipping away.
Needless to say, the family will insulate and protect that loved one as long as they can. They may be embarrassed by “Daddy’s” behavior, even though it is important to note that “Whenever a person acts “out of turn,” doing or saying something that in normalcy of mind they would never do or say…it is the disease talking, not them!” As one person put it, “Part of me dies every day as I watch my husband, my lifelong companion, lover and confidant, slip away a little piece at a time.” One of the hardest things any Alzheimer’s family deals with is “letting go” of the person they used to know.
There is grief of the future, present, and past that the family will have to deal with. Plans of retirement trips and other dreams often have to be laid aside. Grief of the present results, because there is coming a time in which “Daddy” can no longer function in public places, whether in church or in other social gatherings. Grief of the past is coming, in which in the final stages a AD patient does not have their mental faculties about them, even to the point of not being able to speak or recognize loved ones.
What Are Elderships To Do?
God commands shepherds to “watch for the souls” of those within their church family (Hebrews 13:17). They are to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:4). Families who are hurting in grief because of death or because of illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other maladies are not excluded from the “flock” simply because they cannot attend church services on a regular basis or be involved in the work of the church, like they might desire. Caregiving church members of those suffering with AD do not want to feel isolated from their congregation, or have guilty feelings if they cannot be as involved as they would like to be at church.
Elderships should visit the AD patient and caregiving family on a regular basis. It might be helpful to call ahead of time, to make sure it is a good time to visit. Often AD patients are better mid-morning, as they are often more alert than later in the afternoon and evening.
If it is possible, congregations can be of great benefit by giving time off to those who stay with the AD patient. If it is a man who has Alzheimer’s, other men could stay with him for a few hours, while ladies take the wife out for some “down time” and a short period of “normalcy.” If this is not possible, there are AD centers that will take a patient in for a few hours, thus allowing the caregiver time off to attend AD support groups, or simply do something on her own.
In Romans 12:15, we are told to rejoice with them that rejoice and weep with them that weep. As a part of God’s family, we do not have the choice of obeying one of these commands without obeying the other one. Folks who are grieving want to know two things from those who seek to help them––first, that they truly do not know what they are going through and secondly, that they still care.
May the words of Psalm 142:4 never be true of anyone we know and love. May God bless each of you as you seek to minister to the needs of those who are hurting within your church families.