It is my privilege these days to be ministering to a support group for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients.  In every case but one, the caregivers tend to the needs of their spouses.  In one case a woman takes care of her mother.  This is my first real exposure to this terrible disease.  Certainly I have read about Alzheimer’s and have seen a few very touching movies depicting the struggles and heartbreaks that come into people’s lives when this kind of dementia begins to emerge.  Romantic drama is one thing.  To hear the lived experiences is quite another.

May I say that I have been humbled by these encounters?  The love and devotion of each of these caregivers are apparent.  In most cases the loved one no longer recognizes who the spouse of daughter is.  I struggled to keep the tears from flowing the first times I listened to the sharing.  While they spoke of the difficulties involved in being the primary caregiver, no one gave the slightest hint of resentment.  Some said that they welcomed relief when they were able to find home-care assistance from time to time.  Others, whose spouses where in residential care, spoke of making the daily journey to the center, wondering as they drove whether the loved one would recognize them today or whether there would be evidence of further descent into the terrible void.

Memories are treasured.  It isn’t so much that the caregivers are living in the past.  The pictures and letters and the memories that in one case stretch over 63 years serve to fill in what is missing now.  There are teachers, doctors, nurses, educators, a concert pianist and an attorney among the patients.  All seem to have had stellar careers.  The pride in the caregivers is obvious.  For all of them the wonderful times seem like only yesterday.  But that is not so.  Most have been caring for the loved ones for at least a decade.  In one case, the saga has been going on for 14 years.  In two of the cases, Alzheimer’s began to emerge when the patients were in their forties.  It is only popular myth that Alzheimer’s afflicts solely the aged.  Imagine the pain for a 9-year-old coming to realize that her mother doesn’t know her any more.  And there is nothing that can be done to restore that recognition.

Caregiver after caregiver says in one way or another that of course they will continue serving as they are until death comes.  After all, that was the commitment that was made in the wedding vows.  That is amazing to hear in this age of casual relationships, of infidelity, and of frequent divorce.  They do what they do because they promised before God and their faith communities to love, honor and cherish the love of their life for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.  None of them imagined that Alzheimer’s would be in the hand life dealt.

After several of these sessions I have found myself reflecting their issues in the light of Baptism.  When a person comes to the Font to be Baptized a commitment is being made to walk with Christ, to act in, with, and through Christ, to be Christ’s other self.  Like marriage vows, it might seem easy to make the baptismal promises.  After all, what struggles could there possibly be when one walks with Christ?  We forget that Jesus told the parable of the sower who went out to sow the seeds.  You know how the story goes.  The seeds fall in various places.  Some are trod one as they sprout.  Birds eat others.  And still others are choked by weeds.  But some do flourish in rich soil and grow to yield a rich harvest.  The analogy fits well over those who go down into the waters of Baptism.  For some the journey will be short, as distractions will lure them to former ways of life or other things that dazzle them.  Others will go after a new or different teacher and way of life that allows them to wrap themselves in contemporary goals and values.  Others will get bored and simply lose interest.  But some remember the promises and remain faithful to them for the rest of their lives, living as Christ’s followers, loving others as Christ loves them, helping to build the Kingdom of God until Christ comes again.

The caregivers among whom I minister are people of faith.  They bear witness of seeing the hand of God in so much that happens.  While I do not think that God afflicts people with Alzheimer’s and more than that God sends other illnesses and evils into people’s lives, I do believe that God is in those moments bearing the sorrows with the afflicted and supporting them with love.

Recently a man spoke about his wife’s final days.  Pneumonia set in.  Doctors urged him to let them take some extraordinary means to save her life.  But he told the group that he was convinced the pneumonia was Christ’s gift to his wife.  He refused the doctor’s requests and held his wife’s hand as she breathed her last.  He was faithful to the end.  His voice choked as he told the story, but clearly he was at peace.

It is a blessing to be able to minister among these people, to be stirred by their stories, and to marvel at their strength.  The added bonus, of course, is that I find my own faith is being bolstered by their witnessing to their faith.  I am humbled to be invited to journey with them during these hours of sharing faith stories.

Some people are embarrassed by encounters with disabled people and shut themselves off lest they have to deal with them.  Some faith communities think that sitters should stay with the disabled in hospitality rooms so that there will not be distractions for the assembly to have to contend with during mass.  It seems to me that the disabled ought to be encouraged to engage in ministries that they are able to carry out.  There have been blind lectors, and Down syndrome ushers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.  There have been mentally disabled Greeters and Ushers.  To the extent that the disabled are evident in the Assembly does the Assembly give evidence of being the Body of Christ.

Advanced Alzheimer’s patients obviously would not be able to minister.  But as long as they are able to be brought to worship they ought to be welcomed.  The Assembly ought to be mature enough not to be embarrassed by the occasional mishap or mistake.  After all, the patients are the beloved of God.

If you have the opportunity to volunteer to work with the disabled, Alzheimer’s patients among them, welcome the opportunity.  Remember when Jesus urged his disciples to be generous in good works because the measure they measure out will be measured back to them?  Believe me, that’s what happens when you serve the physically or mentally impaired.  Unimaginable returns will come to you as your own faith is strengthened.  You might even come to see yourself in a whole different light.  You will find Christ to be more evident in the midst of your serving.  And you will know that you are loved even as you help to build the Kingdom.

Who knows what tomorrow may bring?  Whatever it is, with Christ you will be strengthened be at peace.



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