When we realized that my husband, Gary, was having short-term memory problems, and began the process of diagnosing his condition, we hoped it was something curable, like a thyroid imbalance, or B-12 deficiency. As the many tests eliminated the more “hopeful” possibilities, there was a recurring and frightful thought. “I hope it’s not Alzheimer’s.” I think more people are afraid of getting dementia, than cancer.
Why is that?
Our memories define us. Think how many songs refer to our memories. We take selfies in front of the Grand Canyon. Love letters are tucked away in a box. The idea of forgetting what we have done and who we are is terrifying. For a Christian, the possibility of forgetting God, and our relationship with Him is unthinkable.
Dr. Benjamin Mast has presented a comforting answer to these fears in his book, Second Forgetting. As a licensed clinical psychologist and committed Christian, he gives hope for those who are forgetting and those who care for them. After 8 ½ years of caring for Gary, who is now in advanced stage Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, I found this book EXTREMELY helpful.
Dr. Mast explains The Second Forgetting as follows: “We are all imperfect and broken. We forget the Lord, even in the best of health. This is what I call the “the second forgetting.” p 18. Everyone forgets God. Even believers do. That is why we need reminders. Dr. Mast sites the Israelites who forgot God repeatedly yet God never forgot them and kept His promises to them. This is comforting.
Two chapters are devoted to understanding Alzheimer’s disease and how the brain remembers. Knowing the various ways to access memories stored away in a person’s brain is really useful in helping those we care for. The distant past, actions, emotional events are memory systems that are accessible longer than the short-term memories which is one of the first “memory systems” to fail.
The most helpful part for me personally was the section on the Gospel, who a person is in Christ, and how God interacts with believers, whether their minds are healthy or not. As Gary is mostly non-communicative now, I have been wondering how his inner man can be renewed, though his body is decaying day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) I believe it is true, but wondering HOW. By working his way through Psalm 139 and Romans 8, Dr. Mast draws out how God intimately cares for His own. He fully KNOWS us. He extends GRACE to us. Nothing can separate us from God. Not even dementia.
There are some great practical ideas in this book for all of us.
Help for the “forgetful”
The body of Christ has an important role in serving dementia affected families. Practical tips are given for how to serve. For instance, “Visit, but be flexible. Caregiving for someone with advancing dementia can be quite unpredictable. Something could come up that is out of their control and they may need to cancel.” p 119
Help for caregivers
Biblical encouragement to “press on,” follow Christ’s example of service, and rely heavily on His grace in the exhausting days. In reality we are serving the Lord Jesus, as we serve our loved one. “As a caregiver, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you too have a caregiver, one who can surpassingly meet all of your needs. Christ is our caregiver.” P 90
Helping the loved one…
Remember their faith
“… multisensory stimuli can be used to help them remember. Smells, sounds, sights can prompt recollection of different parts of a person’s story. Pictures and music can be particularly helpful…” p 125
Remember the Lord
All through scripture God sets up “memorials” so His followers would remember the important things. Who He is, His promises, His kind and gracious deeds to His own. We can do the same thing with those we care for. Old photo albums, talking about the Lord, regularly reading the Bible, listening to hymns, and prayer* are good ways to keep God in the forefront of our minds, and help our loved ones do the same. New long term memories will not be formed, but moment to moment comfort and sanctification can take place.
Even now, we can be building into our lives habits that would support our relationship with the Lord if we should forget one day. Dr. Mast has excellent suggestions on this. He closes with the following thought:
“It is far more significant that God remembers us than that we remember him. This speaks to the reality that our salvation, from beginning to end, is by grace. In Grace God reaches out to rescue us – not the other way around. Our salvation, ultimately is not up to us. We cannot save ourselves, and there is comfort in this as a person experiences physical and mental decay.” p 163
Now that Gary is in advanced stage Alzheimer's, I don't know what he is remembering much less what he thinks, but I do know He is safe in God's hands. We are past the usefulness of most of the practical suggestions from this book, but they are really good and we have done many of them. If you are caring for someone like Gary, please get this book. Find out how you can help your loved one remember the Lord, and be comforted that God remembers them.
*Note: As with any good resource I’d encourage discernment as you read. There’s a second-hand example given about a Catholic woman finding peace through praying the rosary. No doubt a true story, but I wish the author hadn’t used it in a book about how to help Christians remember the Lord.
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