This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Taking responsibility for the care of a person suffering from any stage of dementia can be one of the greatest challenges of life. But there are not only challenges. There are also opportunities; opportunities to serve unselfishly in the way our Lord serves us, opportunities for personal growth, and opportunities for God to be glorified.
Caring for someone with dementia may cause you to pray and depend on the Lord in a way you haven't done before.
Among the challenges is loving and caring for one we have loved for many years but whose personality has now changed so dramatically. Another challenge is having to be available 24/7 without sufficient time for refreshment and renewal. Caring for one with dementia has the potential to bring out the worst in the caregiver, revealing an aspect of themselves that needs God’s transforming power. No wonder nearly 50% of caregivers experience severe depression.
I would like to suggest several things to you.
Learn as much as possible about the particular form of dementia you are dealing with.
There are many resources available. Reading my book Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia may help. Go online and look at some of the resources available through the Alzheimer’s Association or meet with one of their support groups in your community.
Recognize and provide for your own needs to maintain your physical health, emotional stability, and relationship with God.
In light of the great demands of caregiving you must take care of yourself. It is humanly impossible to continually give of yourself without taking time to refresh. You will need to exercise, socialize, and have time with the Lord to be renewed by his word and by fellowship with fellow believers.
Set realistic expectations.
Caring for one with dementia will be humbling. You will not do it perfectly. Situations will come up beyond your control. You may be out in public when your charge explodes in an emotional outburst for no evident cause. Their lack of inhibition may allow them to say things that are socially inappropriate. Over time you may learn to control these situations better but in the meantime you will have to recognize that doing the best you can may not be enough and you will have to be satisfied with that.
Be willing to recruit help early in the disease. Do not wait till you are desperate.
This is key. If there are other friends or loved ones who can help, you must sit down with them as a group and discuss how you are going to manage the situation. It will be necessary for one person to be the primary caregiver as having too many people directly involved will be disconcerting for the patient. Still others must contribute. Some who are local may help with household chores, cleaning, shopping, doing laundry, or yard work. Those who live at more of a distance may take over the finances.
In addition there may be help available through community resources such as visiting nurses or adult day care. At times it will be appropriate to move to residential care in a dementia facility. The church should be contacted early in dementia to provide help and support when needed.
Grow in your relationship with the Lord.
Caring for someone with dementia may cause you to pray and depend on the Lord in a way you haven't done before. God will use this experience to allow you to grow in your ability to trust him. He will develop in you some of the fruit of the spirit such as love, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and gentleness.
Many believers love the image of God as the potter in the Old Testament. We are clay that he is molding to make us into vessels he can use. Few of us would look forward to being put on a potter’s wheel and spun around while our rough edges are being knocked off but our loving father may be using our caring for one with dementia to do just that.
Look to your eternal reward.
There will come a day when you and the victim of dementia will stand together in God’s presence as whole people without any sign of dementia. You will hear your Lord say “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). The effort you put forward and the sacrifices you made as caregiver will be judged by your Lord as gold, silver and precious stones that will glorify him. In light of the glories then present and those yet to come the struggles of this life will pale in significance.