There is so much more within a person than we suspect.
My grandfather suffers from encroaching memory loss. When I visit, he still asks about my family and is invariably surprised – and very pleased — that I’m married and have six children. He remembers well that I’m his grandson, remembers that I’m named after him, but many details about my current state of life have begun to escape him.
He does, however, love to talk about his childhood, how he used to do chores on the family farm in Moscow Mills, Missouri. He tells me how he would bury the turnip harvest in mounds of dirt for storage and retrieve one each day for lunch. He talks about driving the mules and living through some very lean years in the 1930s. When I arrive, I help him up from his recliner, and he remembers how to make me a cup of coffee — a consummate host. He watches old football games from decades past and enjoys every minute of them.
Memory loss is a disease that lingers below the surface. It affects him in the hidden recesses of his own mind, and only he knows what precious memories remain. The frustration, for him, has been that he is well aware that he’s forgotten something, but isn’t quite sure what. I’m sure it feels like a piece of himself has been lost.
As a priest, I often visit people in the final days of their lives. Often, they suffer from dementia and memory loss. Even in their distress, they’ve asked for a Catholic priest because they remember their faith and how important it is to prepare for death. They want to make a final confession. I am happy to hear that confession, even though much of what might have been talked about during the confession has been long forgotten. I’ve always believed that God honors our intentions and our best efforts to bring those intentions to fruition, and there’s something precious about those broken confessions. Even after much of their personal identity has been erased, these people desire to tell God exactly who they are so that he can embrace them, just as they are. It is a moment of childlike trust.
I don’t want to romanticize dementia or memory loss. It is a difficult, frustrating limitation for the people who bear these crosses, slowly attacking the core of who they are and isolating them from both the past and present. It is also hard on caretakers. It pains children to see their parents slipping away and to struggle with providing proper medical care. But buried within even this suffering there are moments of beauty, and a person with dementia still leads a valuable life.
Is it possible to grow old happily?
I worry that, too often, our value as human beings is linked to our productivity – how much money we earn, how mentally sharp we are, how physically fit we are. This leads to certain people who are no longer able to contribute being forgotten, hidden away in nursing homes, and denied the care and respect they deserve. For instance, art therapy has unlocked the amazing creativity of people struggling with memory loss. There is so much more within them than we suspect, hidden treasures that only emerge after a lifetime of experience. Art therapists have helped show the dignity of people even in this latter stage of life.
As I step off the front porch and walk back to the parish after visiting someone with dementia, I have time to think. Is quality of life tied to memory? Does it require a certain level of brain function? If so, how in the world would an outsider draw that line? We are on very dangerous ground to assume that people showing signs of vulnerability and decline automatically have no quality of life. Indeed, with my own grandfather, he seems happier than ever to see me. He values his days, his time, his morning coffee, his family. Happiness is available in every stage of life.
I quickly realized that I cannot “fix” any of my parishioners with dementia, I can only be there, listen, help them in small ways. There’s nothing else to be done. The only successful reaction is love. Isn’t that the whole point, though? To love each other exactly as we are, the best that we can?
People with dementia take great joy in reliving old memories, and in a way their childhood is returned to them; their mother is alive again, they’re back on the family farm, back in the dog days of a summer looking at the world with wonder. They begin to let go of worries and take joy in small things. The moments of clarity become more fleeting, but they’re all the more precious. Nothing is taken for granted. Even though the memories don’t last, the tender moments we share are still important. They still happened.
There is so much more to a human being than we think, so much that makes a life valuable. A piece of the puzzle to human identity and value is tied up in the love that we share, the reality that we are never alone but will take turns carrying burdens for each other – when you are old, I am young, when I am weak, you are strong.
Memory itself is a collective endeavor. Through the years, a family tells stories. These are the stories that shape us, guarding our individuality while at the same time connecting us with our ancestors and our children. They keep us connected even through the ravages of memory loss and dementia. As a Christian, I have faith even that our memories cross the vastness of eternity and link the living and the dead.