MY MOTHER LIVED WITH dementia for more than 20 years. My family members all experienced grief that was deep and complex, yet there were surprising moments with Mom that I found profoundly spiritual. As I spent time with her through the stages of her Alzheimer’s, I experienced a few times when she reached a place more complex and lucid than our understanding of her medical condition might allow.
As a scientist with an interest in chaplaincy, I wondered: What is known about this intersection of dementia and spirituality? What does the church say about dementia? How might all this inform our ministry to those experiencing dementia?
“Dementia” itself is a difficult word. Its origin comes from “de-” (undoing) “mentia” (mind). Already this label stigmatizes a person. A preferred term might be ADRD: Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Diseases. Alzheimer’s is a brain disease thought to cause some 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Related diseases include vascular, frontotemporal, and Lewy Bodies types of dementia. All have symptoms of memory loss, cognitive loss, and eventually physical loss (such as the inability to walk), caused by progressive damage and death of brain cells.