By Rev. John McFadden, M. Div., Valley VNA chaplain

Up to half of us are likely to experience varying degrees of forms of dementia, so it is unfortunate that the popular press focuses so exclusively on the hope or assumption that we will be the lucky ones to age without cognitive change or loss. Together with my wife, Dr. Susan McFadden, a gerontologist, much of my vocation has come to focus on what constitutes spiritual meaning within the reality of dementia. Our core idea is that our personhood is rooted in our relationships—with God, the natural world, other people, the arts—and therefore continues even when memory and executive function changes or fades.

Alzheimer’s Disease has sometimes been termed “the theological disease” because of the fundamental questions it raises about selfhood. At one point in human history, lepers were considered unclean and disallowed from entering temples or touching others, and therefore denied direct access to the presence of God. In our era, selfhood and one’s divine image are almost exclusively associated with cognition. Cognition is essential to the abilities we have been taught give our lives worth and meaning: productivity, autonomy, and independence. Dementia is the most feared illness among persons over the age of 65 because it threatens our identity as selves and our role as productive, contributing members of the community. The constructs of modernity tell us that “becoming a burden on others” marks us as a failure at the task of successful aging.

We are creatures created in the divine image not because we physically or intellectually resemble the Almighty One, but because God remains in faithful relationship with us in all circumstances and conditions. God’s goodness can be experienced within the reality of cognitive loss, even as it can be within physical disability, chronic pain, or heartrending grief. What follows are these three essential points:

  • If we should forget God, God will not forget us.
  • If we forget God, our community of faith can remember us to God.
  • Our friends and family can bring God’s presence into our lives through means that do not require us to grasp that presence cognitively.

As individuals, we must reject the stigmatization of dementia and overcome our own fear of it. A first step is to reflect on our own definition and role of friendship in our lives. Do our relationships primarily form around usefulness or pleasure, defined much like a series of business transactions where what we give and receive has value amongst both parties? The fear of developing dementia is in part the fear of being abandoned by friends because we will no longer be able to contribute anything “useful” or enjoyable to the relationship.

Now consider the only form of friendship that is complete, put forth by Aristotle; that is, the friendship of virtue, a friendship whose goal is to help one another live good and ethical lives. A virtuous friendship is centered on genuine commitment to help one another become better people. We wish good for our friends, we seek to guard and protect them, we commit to spending time with them, we share common choices and decisions centered in our efforts to live virtuous lives, and we share in our friends’ joys and sorrows. In a virtuous friendship, we are not free to abandon our friends who journey into dementia.

Next week, I will share a list of seven tips on how to value, visit, and engage friends with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. To learn more about our chaplaincy at Valley VNA, or to inquire about in-home care or assisted living for people experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, please call (920) 727-5555. We offer a wide range of services and support for both seniors in need of care and their caregivers.