Watching someone you love struggle with dementia is never an easy thing. My mother-in-law's challenges in the past few years -- and prior to that, her challenges as a caregiver for her husband, as he struggled with Alzheimer's -- have made me do a lot of thinking and praying. They've also made me recall the years my grandmother lived with us when I was young. How do we care best for people we love who struggle with memory loss and confusion? How do we show our love and care for them from afar, when we can't be with them all the time? How do we support the people who are their main caregivers if we're not?
There's a very helpful and thoughtful article that deals with those kinds of questions posted at the her:meneutics blog on Christianity Today. One the things I appreciate is the honesty of Benjamin Mast, the author being interviewed, when he talks about the vulnerability of elderly people with dementia and memory loss, and how easy it is for the church to overlook them. They are part of what he terms as an almost invisible demographic.
I've been wrestling with this a lot since our last family visit to Virginia to see my mother-in-law. She has been part of a moderately large non-denominational Bible church for over forty years. Yes, the same church for over forty years. While I was touched at how warmly she was welcomed to her Sunday School class when we took her to the Easter Sunday service, it was apparent that no one had been in touch with her much at all in the intervening months since she'd last been able to make it there. She struggles a great deal with loneliness, and yet from all I can ascertain, it is very rare that she receives calls from anyone at this church, and much more rare for her to receive an actual visit.
I think there are probably lots of reasons for this. Chief among them may be the contemporary, post-modern mindset that assumes that individuals would rather muddle along privately than rely on others for help. I think there is an assumption that family will do the caring, and absent that, that social services and retirement communities (my mother-in-law lives in one) will plug any care deficit. While it's true that there is a chaplain at my mother-in-law's care facility (maybe more than one?) that person is responsible for a great number of people. It also seems odd and painful to me that the local church, which would seem to be the best representative of "family of faith" there is, would so quickly fade out of the picture, even when someone has been a faithful member of that church for decades.
It may call into question how our churches can lack inter-generationality (is that a word? Well, it is now...) By that, I mean generations spending intentional time together. I don't think this has to be all the time. There are certainly times and places where it is appropriate for people to gather with people of their own age and life experience to learn at levels that fit the seasons of their lives. Young children and teenagers aren't the only people who could benefit from that. I think fellowship groups or Sunday School classes for middle aged people could be very beneficial, partly to learn and pray together over the challenges of aging! But when churches are very age-segregated, that can lead to other challenges. I know for many years that my mother-in-law had felt most at home in her own Sunday School class for older people. More and more, she felt out of place at worship, which had grown more casual and contemporary than she felt comfortable with. The people she was most connected to were her age or older, and now when she is struggling, probably many of them are as well.
All of this has made me feel deeply grateful (again, and for yet another reason) to be a part of a historical, liturgical church tradition. Anglicanism, steeped as it is in the threefold ministerial offices of bishops, priests, and deacons, reserves a very important and biblical role for deacons as leaders in pastoral and practical care for the people of God. (I love deacons! And not just because I consider many of them good friends, and have been blessed to teach in the diaconate study program in my diocese for a number of years.) My dear husband and I have reflected lately on how glad we are to belong to a church tradition that has a long, historically-enriched, biblical practice of pastoral care. It doesn't mean that each and every church we've ever been part of has always practiced it perfectly...that's not possible. But it means that there is a much greater chance of such care being available and humbly and lovingly offered and practiced than in traditions that are shaped more by contemporary values than by historical and biblical ones.
As the body of Christ, we are to rejoice when another member rejoices and suffer when another member suffers. We are also to carry one anothers' burdens and practice loving care amongst the household of saints. And that's true no matter how old and frail the saints may be. Our love for the most vulnerable and "invisible" among us is surely a mark of our love for God.