Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: dementia

A step forward, a step back

We found a house to rent just a few miles from church. I started working for Ed Klassen’s carpenter crew. Things were working out well for me; I wasn’t so sure how this was going to work for Chris. I was still a young Christian, trying to sort things out for myself and didn’t know how to be much help to her.

The big sticking point for Chris was that she knew these Holdeman Mennonites believed that if you were a Christian there had to have been a starting point, a new birth. She thought she didn’t have anything to tell and wouldn’t be allowed into the church.

Sure, there had been those times as a young girl at camp where the counsellor had led her in praying the sinner’s prayer then assured her that now shew was saved. Then she had those nightmares when we were first married that the end of time had come and she wasn’t ready. The General Conference Mennonite preacher had assured her she was fine. Her testimony before she was baptized in that church was that she had always wanted to be a Christian. That had been enough, and it would have been enough for the Conservative Mennonites. But she knew that wasn’t going to work here.

As I remember it, when I came home after my first day’s work, Chris met me with the news that minister Bennie wanted to visit with us. Lillian, his wife, had visited with Chris during the day and they had talked about the changes in our lives over the past few years. Lillian thought there was something there that sounded like a new birth experience.

We had supper and went over to Bennie and Lillian’s. Chris recounted the event she had told Lillian earlier that day. She had always believed that she was a Christian. About a year earlier she had felt that God was asking something of her that she was not willing for. She had outright refused. Then the awful truth dawned on her for the first time in her life – she was lost. She had knelt down and prayed, promising to do whatever God asked of her. At that she felt complete peace.

Since she had always thought she was saved, she had not understood this experience as the beginning of her Christian life. But as we talked it over it became clear to all of us that this had been unlike anything she had experienced before. This was where she was born again and became a child of God.

This was a new beginning for both of us. We were now fully united in faith and knew we were where God wanted us to be.

Linden was a big congregation; there were a lot of people for us to get to know, and lots of children Michelle’s age. She celebrated her fourth birthday October 28, 1975.

I had always known that carpenter work was a bit of a stretch for me, but it was the kind of work that was available. My allergies left me with an insecure sense of balance. Working on a roof was almost torture, but I forced myself to do it as best as I could. I managed to cope for a couple months, but late in November the allergy problem kicked in with a vengeance. It started with sneezes and snuffles, developed into a sinus infection and then I lost my voice. With antibiotics I was feeling fine in about a week and started back to work. Before the end of that week I was as sick as I had been the first time.

Okay, this line of work just wasn’t for me. Perhaps there might have been something else for me in the Linden area, but it seemed like we should go back to Moose Jaw.

The return to Moose Jaw was a detour from our route to the church, but it was soon evident that there was a need at home. My father’s dementia rapidly becoming worse, the burden on my mother was too much for her to bear alone.

We settled into life in Moose Jaw once again. Chris went back to working at the senior’s residence; I worked for Dennis on the farm the next two summers. In between time I taught Michelle to read. I know I wasn’t as patient and kindly a teacher as my mother had been, but she did learn. Then she could read the little books that Julia had given me when I was her age.

My father went into a nursing home and my mother went to visit him almost every day. I drove her sometimes, but there was no use trying to visit with my father. He didn’t know who I was anymore. He still knew Mom and my uncle Art, his youngest brother. But I guess I came along too late. Dad was 50 when I was born and that event didn’t seem to be in his memory bank anymore.

We went to church at Hague or Bredenbury about once a month. It was a three hour trip to get to either place. I remember one trip to Hague on a very cold winter day. We were driving a 1972 Toyota Corolla, a very small car in that era. We found that the heating system was just enough on that frigid day to keep the windshield clear or to keep ourselves warm, but it wasn’t up to doing both. The choice was obvious, we had to see where we were going. It wasn’t a comfortable trip.

We enjoyed the Sundays in those small congregations, the fellowship, the opportunity to worship with fellow believers, and looked forward to a time when we would be free to move into a congregation.

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Adopted

I remember the last time my father blew up at me. He was 80, I was 30 and it was the same tirade that I had heard so many times before during my 30 years. I knew there was no use trying to argue, change the subject or yell back at him. He was not in control of himself at moments like this and any resistance would just aggravate him further. I just waited patiently for the storm to blow itself out.

I had become a Christian two years earlier and when the blast was over I found a quiet place to pray. “Oh God,” I asked, “why couldn’t I have had a better father?”

The answer was immediate: “But you do, you have a perfect father.” I have clung to that ever since.

This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 8:15: “ For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”

My father sank into dementia not long after that, and soon he didn’t even know me. He was 50 when I was born, after all. I really think he meant well, but he simply didn’t know how to cope with starting a family at that age. Our heavenly Father does not have that problem. Even when we stray from Him and suffer the consequences, He does not drive us farther away, but calls us back.

Dementia

My mother wasn’t able to look after herself anymore and had come to live with us. One day a conversation with a visitor went like this:
—How old are you?
—What year is it?
—Two thousand and four
—Then I am ninety-six.

That was my mother; she couldn’t remember how old she was, but she wasn’t about to admit it so she answered with a question of her own. When she was given the year she instantly made the calculation in her head and gave the right answer.

My father’s dementia worked a little differently; he lived to be 86 but always told people he was 82. It seems that was how old he was when dementia took away his ability to connect with what was happening.

Some people become quite difficult as dementia sets in. They resent being told to put on clothes that they don’t recognize. The problem is that their mind has slipped back 50 years and the clothes they would recognize are long gone. Others may be just as confused about where they are and what is happening, yet they are sweetly thankful for every little act of kindness.

Some people eventually lose the ability to communicate. A familiar face, a familiar voice, may stir some sign of recognition, but they can’t quite grasp who it is they see and hear. There are those who seem altogether vacant, yet their eyes light up when a familiar hymn is sung. Sometimes they might even sing along, yet show no sign of remembering after the song  is finished. It is important for us to believe that there is still a person in that body, and even though they cannot reach out to us, they do know when we reach out to them by kind words and touches.

Some people seem immune to dementia. We visited a lady after she turned 100, she may have been a distant relative of my wife. She was bright and chipper, her hearing was good, her eyesight was good – she read a regular print Bible, had no difficulty walking. We visited her again several months later – she recognized us and remembered our names.

We met a man, a distant relative of mine, who was also over 100. He played billiards, drove his car to his country church every Sunday, pushed people in wheelchairs around the yard of the nursing home.

Both of these people had a positive outlook on life and were interested in other people. This leads me to some observations:

  • A self-centred person has a miserable life and seems to be more inclined to develop dementia, where he can make everybody around him miserable, too.
  • A person who is genuinely interested in others develops the ability to exercise their mind in following a multitude of paths his mind might not otherwise take and this may make him less apt to develop dementia.
  • A person who is genuinely thankful, and readily expresses that thankfulness will be a pleasant person to be around even if he develops dementia.

I know, these are totally unscientific conclusions and there are many other factors involved. Still, I think they are thoughts to bear in mind as I grow older so that I can cultivate the attitudes that will make life less difficult for those who may have to care for me if I ever develop dementia.

Dementia

There are things that I wish that I would have understood better when my parents were suffering with dementia.  Above all, I wish I could have understood that even though their personalities had changed and their memories seemed to be gone, the father and mother that I had once known were still there, though unable to communicate.

I am beginning to understand how important it is to talk to such people and demonstrate our love in other ways, even though we see no sign of understanding and response.  And in some way that is unfathomable to us, God is still able to communicate with people with dementia.

Yesterday I attended a volunteer appreciation tea, put on by one of the hospitals in Saskatoon, for those who are involved in the Sunday morning chapel services.  The conversation got around to how important it is to older people to hear the familiar old hymns of the faith.  There were incidents mentioned of services in nursing homes, where someone would appear to be completely out of it during most of the service, then would ask for a familiar hymn and sing along with it.

A book from England, Could it be Dementia?*, recounts incidents of this type.  A nursing home resident with Alzheimer’s disease sat through a worship service, mouth wide open and a vacant look on her face.  When the minister read the text for his message her mouth closed, her eyes came alive and she drank in the whole message, then at the end the vacant look returned and her mouth dropped open.  Another woman lit up during a familiar hymn and sang along with the chorus after each verse.  Later she had no recollection of the hymn.  A man who was barely able to communicate a word or two sat through a mission report with no sign of comprehension, but when the meeting was opened for prayer he prayed a meaningful and moving prayer which showed he had been taking it all in.

Incidents such as these may be relatively rare, but they give us a glimpse into the reality that even though the light may be off, someone is still there.  The brain is a physical organ and when it no longer functions as it once did the person seems to be slipping away from us.  Yet the soul, the real person, is not affected by physical degeneration.  These people need someone to care for them physically, but we should remember that their soul still needs feeding and caring for too.

*Could it be Dementia, Losing your mind doesn’t mean losing your soul © 2008 Louise Morse and Roger Hitchings.  Published by Monarch Books, Oxford UK

In memory of Mauvereen

Uncle Gary is my mother’s second youngest brother, the last one still living of a family of fourteen.  He will be 90 in August.  My grandparents were members of a small congregation of Sommerfelder Mennonites in southwestern Saskatchewan that was somewhat isolated from other Mennonite communities.  They spoke Plautdietsch and English at home; the church services were all in German, a language that the youngest eight children never learned.  There really was no point in them even going to church.

Uncle Gary enlisted in the army during World War II and served as a scout for troop movements.  One day he was struck by a piece of shrapnel that blew away part of his jaw.  Medics patched him up in a tent near the battlefield and he recovered with a scar that is barely visible today.

When he came home from the war, he took special note of a young waitress named Mauvereen in a town not far from his parents’ home.  He wanted to get to know her, but she refused outright to go to a dance with him, or to the movies.  He realized the only way to spend time with her was to go to the church she attended.  Eventually they got married.

Today, uncle Garry will tell you that he would never advise a Christian young lady to marry an unconverted man, that usually it will not turn out well.  But in uncle Gary’s case, after a number of years of marriage the Lord spoke clearly to his heart and he became a Christian.

They raised two children, spent many happy years together, then in her early sixties Mauvereen developed dementia and eventually had to be placed in a nursing home.  Gary faithfully spent time with her every day and would feed her when he was there.  He soon realized this was not the right thing to do as Mauvereen would refuse to take food from anyone else.  Little by little Gary turned the task over to the nursing home staff.

For the past fifteen years she has not shown any sign that she recognized Gary, yet he went every day to spend some time with her.  She was the only girlfriend he ever had and he loved her to the end.  A few days ago I got word that aunt Mauvereen had passed away.

Alzheimer’s, or dementia in any form, is a terrible thing.  Yet others have reported that, even though people suffering from dementia are unable to show any outward signs, deep down inside there is still a spark of recognition at the presence of a loved one, at the sound of their voice.  For uncle Gary’s and aunt Mauvereen’s sakes, I want to believe it.

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