Dementia is experienced by some 50 million people around the world and the number is increasing as people are living longer. Christians seem to rationalise physical illnesses more easily than those which affect the mind. Having a loved one whose Christian faith has been strong throughout life then suffer with dementia and sometimes an apparent loss of faith is much harder to bear. Dementia is indeed a tough nut to crack and there are no easy answers but it is something we need to understand better. Pressures in life can act like nutcrackers as they pivot upon us affecting physical and mental health but dementia is in a league of its own. Many conditions can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s but it is also associated with infections, vascular diseases, stroke, depression and chronic drug use. What we fail to know, God knows.
- ‘There are so many people getting dementia. It is like an epidemic now. It is a terrible disease because once you get it, your life changes completely’ – Engelbert Humperdinck
- ‘Can I remember exactly when I 'lost' my husband? Was it the moment when I had to start tying his shoelaces for him? Or when we stopped being able to laugh with each other? Looking back, that turning point is impossible to pinpoint. But then, that's the nature of dementia’ – Judy Parfitt
- ‘We can alleviate physical pain, but mental pain - grief, despair, depression, dementia - is less accessible to treatment. It's connected to who we are - our personality, our character, our soul, if you like’ – Richard Eyre
Dementia is a syndrome rather than a disease that affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. It is an umbrella term covering over 100 types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease (which accounts for c.70% of cases). Usually it comes on in later life, beginning with forgetfulness but leading on to confusion, problems with personal care, safety awareness, poor hygiene and decision-making. It brings a strain on relationships through repetitious questioning and irrational behaviour which can lead to depression and aggression. Dementia manifests itself as brain cells are damaged resulting in problems to memory, language and thought processes.
- ‘Dementia is our most-feared illness, more than heart disease or cancer’ – David Perlmutter
- ‘With something like cancer, there is a feeling that you can fight it in some way or control your response to it, but with dementia there is the fear of losing control of your mind and your life’ – Kevin Whately
Aged 59, successful basketball coach Pat Summitt was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s: ‘I hate to sound this way but, “Why me? Why me with dementia?”' Even though Pat was a professing Christian, she didn’t appear to resolve this question before her death aged 64 – it is one of those questions we cannot answer but we can seek to understand it so we can better care for those who do suffer with it. We are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in all aspects but none more so than the brain, our ‘central processing unit’! The ‘casing shell’ is made up of 22 bones which contain 150,000 miles of blood vessels scattered throughout the brain. More than 100,000 chemical reactions happen throughout the human brain’s approximate 100 billion cells every second – no wonder it can move information at an estimated speed of 260 miles per hour and no surprise than we sometimes get headaches! The brain is the fattiest organ in the body containing 60% fat out of its total weight of 3 pounds whilst also having 25% of the body’s cholesterol! Concurrently 73% of the brain is filled with water. Every time you memorise something, the brain forms new connections and it keeps developing into the late 40s. An extraordinary organ indeed.
- ‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
- ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ – Colossians 3:2-4
- ‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people’ – Ephesians 1:18
- ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day’ – John 6:39
Walnuts have traditionally been considered to be ‘Brain Food’, perhaps because the surface structure of the actual walnut has a crinkly appearance like that of the brain and is housed in a skull-like shell! Along with almonds, brazils, pecans, peanuts and hazelnuts, walnuts are considered to be ‘top nuts’ for the heart and brain. In particular, walnuts are rich in antioxidants and an excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids. It is alleged that this humble nut can also reduce bad cholesterol in the body, improve metabolism, help control diabetes and slow down the spread of cancer. They are not always the easiest nut to crack but Prabhakar Reddy crushed 212 by hand in India on 13th August 2017! The word ‘walnut’ comes from Old English ‘wealhhnutu’ which literally means ‘foreign nut’! China is the largest producer of walnuts in the world, followed by the United States (mainly growing these in California). Given the health properties of the walnut, is it any wonder that they are a commercial crop. Despite this value, even walnuts will go rancid when exposed to warm temperatures for long periods of time as heat causes the fat in walnuts to change structure causing bad flavour and odours.
- ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body’ – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
- ‘…the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ – Colossians 1:26-27
- ‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling’ – 2 Corinthians 5:1-2
We know that the human body has a lifespan – fitness, stamina, strength, eyesight and hearing will all diminish until the body draws its last breath. As the body’s ‘housing’ fades, perhaps it’s not a surprise that this also happens to the mind. However, God’s faithful promises remain eternal as Christ dwells in us. A child of God does not have their name taken out of the Book of Life because they have dementia any more than if they break a leg – God knows those who are forever his even if they forget how to speak and who they have trusted for eternal life. God never abandons or forsakes his children but has a resurrection body awaiting each one in the final healing.
- ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you’ – Psalm 139:7-12
If life sometimes pushes you to breaking point or paints dark shadows around you, take heart and know that God holds you even if dementia presses in and you’ve lost your bearings. Be sure of this too for elderly Christian friends and family as you love and support them in difficult times. Meanwhile keep nuts in the diet, especially the ‘wealhhnutu’.
TAGS – assurance, pastoral care, vulnerable, capacity, hope, heaven, future