By Joe LaGuardia
Several years ago, I ran a caregiving ministry for those whose parents were aging (a few had spouses for whom they cared), and I made visitation to their care receivers a top priority. A majority of care receivers suffered from dementia and dementia-related diseases.
I assumed that when I visited with these suffering servants, I was bringing God to them–that I was ministering to them.
Upon visiting, I found out I was dead wrong. Often, these loved ones ministered to me more than I to them. They provided gifts of presence. They gave words of blessing. They were Christ to me.
In Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens, Kenneth Carder provides testimony of caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and frames ministry to those with dementia as a mutual one of presence.
His narrative rests on a theology of incarnation. Those with dementia minister to us and create a ministry for us within the church. When we visit, our loved ones invite us into their world. They may not remember names and dates and that we visited them yesterday–but they abide in a world in which love and hope spring.
Memories, often long-term, make up a matrix in which people still sing songs they knew as children and recall favorite scriptures. Even anger and depression, prevalent in many dementia loved ones, create ecosystems pregnant with a vocation of being. It is our job as ministers to enter that world and draw out where the Spirit is at work.
Another contribution that Carder makes is in exposing our reliance on cognition as a linchpin for salvation, and our over-reliance on making a confession of salvation in which all our faculties are in full swing. This is based on Enlightenment philosophy from Descartes: our identity stems from an ability to think critically and live independently. “I think, therefore I am.” I confess, therefore I am saved.
Yet, this places salvation in a place of individualistic choice. Our confessions, however, are merely outward acknowledgements of God’s ongoing work in us. It doesn’t necessitate God’s work, but only makes it explicit. When we forget that, we struggle to see how those who have cognitive deficiencies can, as evangelicals say, “get saved.” How can a person who can’t speak or doesn’t remember what is said from one moment to the next “confess Christ” as Lord?
Carder reminds us of biblical salvation, which is more comprehensive than what we have too often privatized. He puts us and the church back into a community in which God is central and God’s salvation a gift of grace, not necessarily dependent on our vocalization of that grace: “We are because of who God is….We are saved because of what Christ has done on our behalf.”
“Dementia,” Carder writes, “challenges a theology that locates God exclusively or primarily in the confines of the human intellect and pushes toward a theology that transcends individualized cognition.”
Our value is not dependent on our independence, but on our value as God’s beloved creation, the imago dei that informs our inherent worth as individuals and as a community. Our salvation is informed by the baptized community that mediates God’s salvation in times when people are unable–incapable even–of doing it themselves (this, surely, is where Carder reflects his Methodism).
When our loved ones lose the ability to think critically or have independence–to know,and say, and do the things that demonstrate salvation in Christ–it is up to us, God’s community, to carry them in the bosom of the church and the nurturing love of Christ.
Our loved ones are valuable not because of their memories or lack thereof, but because we are a remembering–and re-membering–people that move individuals, displaced by disease on the margins, within the center of caregiving congregations.
We don’t bring Christ to loved ones suffering from dementia; rather, we meet Christ in the “world” in which they live. We join these saints, bound up in the promise of salvation, in the community Body of Christ. And this forms a vocation of ministry whereby they act as agents of God’s grace for us.
Overall, Carder’s book is insightful and practical. You will need your Bible in one hand and Kleenex in the other.