This blog is an excerpt from Dr. Benjamin T. Mast new book Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel during Alzheimer’s Disease. This is an important but neglected topic.
Benjamin Mast is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and an Associate Clinical Professor in Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville. He is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in aging, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia related issues. He is Co-Editor in Chief of the forthcoming American Psychological Association Handbook of Clinical Geropsychology (February 2015).
“Through the personal stories of those affected and the loved ones who care for them, Dr. Benjamin Mast highlights the power of the gospel for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Filled with helpful, up-to-date information, Dr. Mast answers common questions about the disease and its effect on personal identity and faith as he explores the biblical importance of remembering and God’s commitment to not forget his people. In addition, he gives practical suggestions for how the church can come alongside families and those struggling, offering help and hope to victims of this debilitating disease.” From Amazon.com book description
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we our- selves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22 – 25)
People with dementia know this groaning. Seeking life through the fog and confusion of dementia, they groan in frustration, both inwardly (as the passage indicates) and outwardly. Deep within they may recall a time when they were free from the weight of memory impairment and confusion, and they may long for a better day. Caregivers will also groan as they long for behavioral challenges to stop, as they long for a return to the way things were, and as they long for the person to remember. Both the person with dementia and the caregiver eagerly await the redemption and restoration of their bodies. As Paul tells us, we wait for something we do not yet see and do not yet have, but this does not change the reality of our hope. Waiting and hoping requires faith, but thankfully we do not wait alone.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26 – 27)
The grace of God is evident in the way he responds to us in our weakness. Here Paul explains that we sometimes suffer so greatly that we don’t even know what we ought to pray for. In these times, the Holy Spirit prays for us “through wordless groans.” The Spirit intercedes for us when we cannot think of the words to pray. If you are caring for a person with dementia and find yourself overwhelmed, seemingly unable to do anything, this passage is for you.
It is also a word of hope to the person who has dementia. In their weakness, the Spirit intercedes with wordless groans on their behalf as well. Sometimes, a person advances to a stage when articulating needs and prayers becomes difficult, if not impossible. But here we are told that the Lord continues to search and know their hearts, interceding on their behalf with these wordless groans in accordance with God’s will. Our faith is in a God who is good, loving, and compassionate. Even when we are unable to speak—perhaps because we are overwhelmed and weak or the disease has severely damaged our brain — we are promised that God still searches our hearts, seeing our innermost thoughts, fears, and hopes, and he responds with prayers on our behalf. God’s grace is so amazing. He gives us what we need when we are too weak or confused to ask for it ourselves. In Alzheimer’s disease we are reminded that God knows us better than we know ourselves.