Sunday, March 13, 2016

Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself

can  be one of the toughest commandments to follow, especially if your "neighbor" has Alzheimer's Disease, or another form of dementia.

From the neighbor's point of view, research shows that dementia is THE MOST FEARED illness of people over 65, because it threatens the person's identity as SELF and his role as a productive, contributing member of the community. In Jesus' time, those with leprosy were not allowed into the temple, and were isolated from social relationships. Sadly, the shame and stigma often associated with dementia can lead to the same sort of isolation. We refer to the person with dementia as "a burden on his son", or "an empty shell". In our society, ceasing to be a productive member of society marks us as a "failure" at successful aging. Too often we fail the test of loving our neighbor by treating the neighbor with dementia as someone who has already passed away.

We don't bring them to church because "he doesn't get anything out of it anymore". We don't visit, because "she doesn't know who I am anymore", or "I don't know what to say to him". We leave him alone with his daughter until she is too exhausted and isolated to go on anymore, and then put him in a nursing home, where he can be "properly cared for".

I'm through preaching, because I'm preaching more to myself than to you. In researching what I intended to be an article on the medical aspects of Alzheimer's, I realized there is not much we can do about developing the disease; but there is VERY MUCH we can do about our attitude and loving behavior toward our neighbor with dementia.

Let's think about "friendship", and how we form friends. Our friends are those with whom we have years of shared experiences. Over time, the shared experiences become shared memories. A community is a web of friendships. How can I be a "friend" to someone who no longer remembers the story of our friendship, or who may not even recognize my name or my face?

We are unwilling to give our friends permission to enter into the world of memory loss. We greet them in a loud voice with a string of questions. "Do you know who I am?"  "What day is it?" " What did you have for breakfast?" Consciously or not, we are attempting to pull them back from memory loss and orient them to the cognitive universe they formerly inhabited.   John T. McFadden, M. Div.

It has been said that people might not remember what you said, or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. Never is this truer than for the person with Alzheimer's. We should interact with them in ways that bring them comfort, joy, and freedom from anxiety.

When we visit our friend with dementia, we should  greet her gently and positively. Do not ask, "Do you know who I am?" but rather announce who you are. "Hello. It's your friend [Ginger]. You look good today." Even these few words may not be fully understood, and she might not recognize you either, but you have established a positive emotional tone.

It is pointless to try to discuss world affairs or politics. On the contrary, because of your years of friendship, you know your friend's interests, passions, and things that bring her joy. You probably know many things about her she no longer remembers about herself.

One article suggests that we listen to a piece of music the friend liked, take a walk together, or look through photos or a family album. Do NOT engage in a game of twenty questions, because that can cause great anxiety. So, when you point to a picture, do not ask, "Who is this?" Rather ask: "What do you think he is doing?"

Will your friend with dementia know who you are? Perhaps not, at least by name. But this does not mean that your friend does not know you as one who cares, and who brings comfort and pleasure. The soul continues to know those it cherishes, even if the brain can no longer supply a cognitive context.  --John T. McFadden, M. Div.

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