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Alzheimer's Takes Hold, and God Does, Too
by Peter Lant
Have you ever witnessed a miracle, even a little one? I have. It occurred in the nursing home where my mother lives. When our parish priest recently said Mass there, my mother surprised me at the beginning of the Gospel when she made the sign of the cross on her forehead, lips and chest with her right thumb. I was left asking myself, where did that come from, as this was indeed a miracle. Let me explain why.
My mother is called Bridget. She is 86 years old, and she has Alzheimer's Disease. Her illness was diagnosed five years ago. She lived with me until her dementia became too difficult for me to attend to. She is now cared for in a nursing home where all of her needs are met.
My mum has always been a person of faith. Being a practicing Catholic has always been a very important part of her life. Going to Sunday Mass, and daily Mass whenever possible, spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament at Eucharistic Adoration, praying to her favorite saint, St. Martin de Porres, and reading from her well-used prayer book characterized her life until recent years. She was a regular attendee at any church event, and expected me to be there as well! When I was at primary school she loved going to a novena held in our local church on Thursday evenings. There was a problem for me, however. This novena clashed with my favorite TV program, "Top of the Pops"! Mum always gently reminded me that I was an altar server, and, somehow or other, "Top of the Pops" got left behind as Mum and I walked swiftly to the church and to our time of prayer.
My mother's Catholic faith helped to sustain her when she became a widow at the age of 43. My father died suddenly, and Mum was left to bring me up by herself. Prayer was a constant at that time, and many novenas were made to St. Martin and to Our Lady.
Why am I telling you this? I believe that faith plays an important part in the life of an Alzheimer's sufferer, and that belief is so much a part of our lives that it is there when almost everything else has been robbed by dementia. When my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it was a natural reaction on both our parts to pray, and for me, as a sole caregiver, to pray as I had never prayed before. We continued to go to Mass together, and, in the early stages of the illness, Mum could still attend Mass alone during the day when I was at work. However, as the illness progressed, it was not safe for Mum to leave the house unattended. But she still loved our Wednesday evening appointment at Eucharistic Adoration in our huge, silent church.
However, even that joy began to leave her, and she became restless in church and found the quietness difficult to cope with. When Mum's illness progressed to a point where she had to go into nursing care, her spirituality remained. Every time I went to see her, I made sure to finish my visit with a prayer. As the illness has taken its inevitable toll, and Mum's memory has disintegrated and her confusion has increased, I still say a prayer with her. She can remember how to bless herself, and she recognizes the opening words of the Hail Mary.
Psychiatrists and specialist dementia nurses tell us that the sufferers of Alzheimer's Disease, and other forms of dementia, take solace in the practice of routines and rituals of long standing, as they provide a reminder of safe and well-loved habits at a time when so many other aspects of life must be very frightening and confusing. This is totally understandable, as all of us, when confronted by something that is upsetting, seek solace in that which is familiar and reassuring.
But as members of the Roman Catholic Church we believe that religion is more that just a series of rituals. We believe that we meet Jesus in a very special way in both our private prayer and in the sacrifice of the Mass. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: "The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow." After a lifetime of listening and responding to the word of God, would it be surprising if that living word had made its way to the deepest part of my mother's spirit, and if it were helping her to respond to the long-practised customs of religion?
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Jesus, at the Last Supper, tells his disciples about the Holy Spirit: "The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you." My mother received the Holy Spirit at Baptism and Confirmation, and she has been a life-long, practising member of the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit, who guided her faith when she was healthy, is still with her in her current state of poor physical and emotional health. He is not going to desert her. Should it be that much of a surprise that Mum can still recognise the faint stirrings of her own spirituality, and that these are noticeable to those who care most about her?
In Isaiah, Chapter 49, when God is consoling the Israelite people, He says:
Can a woman forget her baby at the breast,
Feel no pity for the child she has borne?
Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.
Look, I have engraved you on the palm of my hand.
The immense love of God the Father is expressed in these few short lines, the sense that he is both father and mother to each of us. I find these verses to be a real comfort as I know that my mother is being looked after in a way which is beyond my comprehension, and that God has a relationship with her which only she knows about, and which becomes visible every now and then, as on the occasion when she was able to respond to the Gospel by making the sign of the cross.
I am reassured as I know that, as Alzheimer's takes its unstoppable toll on my mum, she is being looked after by a God who knows her and loves her, and that He will guide her to Heaven at a time of His choosing. I also know that I am being cared for, that the stresses and strains that I have felt as a caregiver have not gone unnoticed, and that my own wounds will be spiritually bound up and healed.
Peter Lant lives in Cookstown, in County Tyrone, Ireland.