Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: dementia

Day one of my eightieth year

Image by M W from Pixabay 

Another birthday, this one is number 79. That many candles on a birthday cake would set off the smoke alarm; perhaps I should feel more alarmed than I do.

In my younger days I couldn’t comprehend the world being able to withstand the impact when all those 9’s in 1999 would rotate to become 2000. It seems I wasn’t alone in having irrational fears about that date, but it is 21 years behind us now. So many years are behind me now that I begin to wonder how many remain in front of me.

I had my annual physical checkup yesterday and the doctor found my heart and lungs were sound. I complained of sciatica in one hip and he thought it was probably arthritis. After checking out the range of pain free movement in my legs he dismissed that idea. So I am hale and hearty, with twinges of discomfort here and there to tell me that my body remembers all those years that are behind me.

As I grow older it becomes clear that I need to choose to become the kind of old guy who is interested in the people and goings on around me. There are enough complainers already, saying how the world isn’t what it used to be, mainly because no one cares about them anymore. Some old people are story tellers, they are more interesting, but eventually you have heard all the stories and they’re not learning new ones.

Story telling isn’t a bad thing. Every person has a story that is interesting and instructive to others, but some folks get into a rut of telling and retelling just a small part of their story. It believe it would be a good school project for upper grade children to interview the elderly, try to draw out their stories and write them down.

The really delightful older people are those who want to hear your story, and those who ask you what you want to hear about the things they have done and seen in life. It seems to me that people like that usually don’t develop dementia so soon as others. There are many causes of dementia, but medical experts tell us the brain is a plastic organ, able to develop new paths of memory in people with an active curiosity.

I consider myself to have an active mind. At times my curiosity leads me to information that causes me to change my mind about something. That is a healthy exercise for the mind. Another helpful exercise would be to become more of an active listener to other people. Not an aggressive listener, but less of a passive observer. Just as I have to choose to get physical exercise because my work no longer involves much physical activity, so I must choose to do things that exercise my mind, to keep it fit and healthy.

I want to live until I die

Age segregation begins in schools. As schools get bigger and bigger it is more and more difficult for a child to relate to those outside her own age group. At the other end of life, retirement offers freedom, but it is freedom with no purpose. Retirees associate with other retirees and strive to keep themselves amused. Eventually they go into retirement homes, which isolates them still more from other age groups. Then they go to nursing homes. As more people require nursing home care, those places become larger and more impersonal. I believe this is a recipe for dementia.

I have painted a pretty bleak picture and we all know people who have stepped out of that flow and lived a meaningful life in their older years. The way people cope with the aging process is a personal choice. Many don’t know what else to do but be carried along with the flow. I don’t want to be in that number. I want to live until I die.

I want to feel that there is a purpose to my life, that I am doing something useful to others, even as I withdraw from the workforce. To accomplish that, I will need to maintain a healthy body, a healthy mind and a healthy heart.

To have a healthy body I need to keep physically active. That doesn’t happen naturally any more, it has to be a deliberate choice. Walking is the best way to keep active, it is low impact and stimulates the whole body. But where I live, for about half of the year it is not very inviting to go out for a walk. So I need a treadmill or a rebounder. Regular, vigorous exercise maintains the health of the heart, the lungs, and the brain.

Having a healthy mind also requires making the choice to exercise it. Doing puzzles and word games is one form of mental exercise, but that is not enough. To prevent my mind from becoming fossilized I need interaction with other people, especially people who do not see everything in exactly the way that I see it. That means children, youth, all ages, plus people of different backgrounds and different life experiences. I need to read books that stretch the mind and help me see the world from a new perspective.

Above all, I need a healthy heart, in the spiritual sense. To maintain the peace and joy of being a Christian also requires exercise. That includes reading and meditating on the Word of God, not just an assortment of favourite passages, but the whole thing, in order to get the whole picture of what God has to say. It includes prayer, not just for myself and my family, but for others — friends, acquaintances, those in authority and those who are not so friendly. That is a very healthy exercise, the more we pray for others, the harder it becomes to say nasty things about them.

As I become more serious about writing, I am challenged to convey my thoughts in a way that is provocative, informative, and sometimes humorous. I need to exercise myself to recognize and avoid trite statements, pat phrases and slogans that no one outside of my bubble will understand. Above all, I need to speak the truth in love, with compassion and without biting criticism.

As a writer, there are times when I need to be alone in my cave in order to get words onto paper. But in order to have words to write, to know what to write and how to write in a way that will interest somebody else, I need to get out of that cave and be with people, all kinds of people. I need to talk to people, listen to people, observe people. The best anti-aging treatment that I know of is people. People who jar my thinking out of its customary rut and help me see things and understand things I would not think of on my own.

Nursing home blues

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The pandemic is winding down, businesses are reopening, yet normalcy is hidden by a mist of uncertainty. Some day we will know if the measures taken during the pandemic were the right ones. I don’t believe I am qualified to comment on that. All levels of government did what they thought was best, according to the information available to them. It is fair to say, though, that China and the WHO did not provide reliable information at the beginning.

I want to talk about one aspect of the pandemic. There was much fear-mongering at the beginning, with good intentions, to prepare people for a monumental health crisis. However, 80% of the deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in long-term care facilities.

We have known for years that there are risks when we take people whose health is not robust and place large numbers of them in one place. Influenza and Noro viruses spread like wildfire in such a setting. A little carelessness in food handling exposes many frail people to gastrointestinal upsets, sometimes fatal.

Why do we think it’s a good idea to expose them to such risks? Possibly because we don’t know what else to do with people who are no longer contributors to society. We have lost the respect we should have for elderly people. The best thing to do is put them in a place where professional staff can amuse them and care for them until the end of their days.

I know many of them have dementia. But evidence suggests that dementia develops more slowly when people feel they are doing something of benefit to others. Wouldn’t we all benefit if we could break down the walls of age segregation? Perhaps this pandemic has given many people time to ponder whether our pursuit of new and change is delivering the benefits we expected.

Every life lived has a story that can offer insights and encouragement to others. I’m not talking about nostalgia. That’s when the old folks get together and talk about how things were better in the good old days. Honestly, though, in many ways they were not better. But people have learned lessons from the difficulties they have faced, the mistakes they have made.

Getting back to my starting point about the way we care for the elderly, I don’t have any ideas about how we should change the institutions we now have. But I think social distancing is a horrible choice of words. We had far too much of that, already. Let’s do physical distancing as long as it’s needed. But lets build social connections between young and old and all strata of our society. I believe we will all benefit. Emotional and mental health are as important as physical health. People who are emotionally and mentally healthy are usually more physically healthy.

The problem of age

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I was sitting in the food court with my 95-year-old mother. A young oriental lady rushed up to us, on the verge of tears, and wanted to meet and hold the hand of this old lady. I was startled at first, but as the young lady talked it warmed my heart to see her love for old people. She was from Calgary, in Saskatoon for a Youth for Christ rally. She had a grandmother, but she lived far away in China. Mom was in the middle stages of dementia and didn’t fully grasp what was going on. That didn’t matter to this young lady, she just felt drawn to my elderly mother.

The Bible says: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32); and “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31).

Do we North Americans have that kind of respect for elders? It’s pretty obvious that we don’t. What’s wrong with us that we don’t have that kind of feeling for old people? The reasons are many and complex and I don’t pretend that the thoughts I give here explain everything.

Something happened when one room schools were closed and children began to be segregated by age in large classrooms. As parents accepted the idea that this was good for children, our whole society began to organize itself in age specific groups.

Parents began to believe that children learned best how to behave from their peers, rather than their parents. This was not a conclusion that they came to based on evidence. It was propagated by psychologists and sociologists. If we dare to look at the evidence, indications are that this has not been a good thing, for children, for families, for society as a whole.

The next development was the creation of youth. Neither was this an accidental development, it was the result of psychologists and sociologists downplaying the experience and wisdom of parents and discouraging children from respecting those older than themselves, or from even wanting to grow up.

Mandatory retirement was meant to make room in the work force for younger people. People were encouraged to look forward to the day when they could leave behind the drudgery of work and spend their time and energy on travel and recreation. That is, pretend you are still young and try to do all the things now that you didn’t get to do when you really were young. But life can’t be fun and games all the time, and many retirees find themselves once again pigeonholed by their age. They no longer have much in common with their workplace friends, since they are now out of touch with the things they once had in common.

Finally then, we are left with the problem of what to do with old people when they no longer appear to have anything useful to contribute to society. Too often we warehouse them in seniors’ homes.

With all the good intentions in the world, I wonder if we haven’t created places that are breeding grounds for dementia. There are many causes for dementia, of course, but when we see people who remain active and alert well into old age, most often they are people who have maintained interest in other people, especially people who are not just like them. Frequent interaction with younger people and people whose trajectory in life has been different stimulates the mind and keeps it from settling into a rut.

Interaction between old people and children can be stimulating for both. And I’m not just talking about grandparents being babysitters, although most appreciate those opportunities. Elders should be encouraged to talk about their lives, the good times and the bad, to make it real to the younger generation.

Elders should have advice to give, but not in a scolding way, or in a hopelessly idealistic way. By the time we have reached the three score and ten mark we have made an awful lot of mistakes, and hopefully learned something from them. We may not want to talk about all of them. But if we can reach back in our memories and tell where we have made a bad choice and the consequences we have experienced, the lesson we try to teach will have a much greater chance of sticking in the minds of the young.

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.

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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