Faith and Dementia
Question: Recently, I visited my grandmother, who has been struggling with dementia and is now in hospice care. As I sat with her to pray and keep her company, I longed for her to recognize me. I wanted to thank her for being there to help raise me and tell her how much I would miss her. I told her anyways, but I couldn't help wondering; was she able to understand me and what happens to us spiritually when we're going through dementia, Alzheimer's, or any similar disease?
Answer: When someone we love is experiencing dementia, is in a coma, or is otherwise unconscious, we should not be so concerned about whether they understand our words. By our compassionate presence with them as they journey through this challenging season of their life, we share a communion of faith and love that speaks in a manner deeper than words. Human consciousness is a mysterious reality. Our minds are capable of the beautiful integration of our many experiences. If one thinks of our dreaming, we learn how our subconscious mind recognizes aspects of our experience that our conscious mind might have missed. Or we can appreciate how our mind can help us work through emotional struggles even if our conscious mind finds them too difficult to bear.
We should also remember that expressing our love, gratitude, or forgiveness for a loved one is as important for us as it is for those to whom we speak. In addition, when speaking to those who have dementia or are otherwise unable to communicate their true feelings, we can focus on their inherent dignity. We can relate to them more calmly and become more comfortable simply being with them rather than expecting anything from them.
As for one’s spiritual experience when in dementia or unconscious, we know these states are not obstacles for God’s grace. We should continuously assure them of God’s love and mercy when they might be anxious and when possible, pray with them the prayers that are etched on their memory. When we pray with them, often the prayers will serve as a comfort to them, and to us.
Father Joe Waters is Judicial Vicar and Censor Librorum of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
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