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How to support families dealing with dementia

| by Ronald Keener

My dad died from dementia, or it might have been Alzheimer’s disease, in his 69th year. That was more than 20 years ago and my sister and I and our mother never pressed the matter further. Nothing was going to change the outcome for dad.

The memories are yet strong of him being strapped into a wheelchair at the VA hospital when we visited. Sometimes he would be dressed in someone else’s shirt or even weep at seeing us. Families with a loved one with the disease never know how much the patient knows what is going on.

Dad was at the VA facility for three years, just 10 miles from our family home in Pennsylvania. He entered the facility to the day that he went into the Navy 40 years earlier—the duty that provided him the VA benefits, and which relieved mother of much of his care that would have been so difficult for her.

John Dunlop, MD, has written a book, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia [Crossway, 2017] that will prove useful to pastors and other church staff and volunteers who want to comfort family members about this irreversible scourge. He kindly responded to a few questions I asked him to answer:

How should families differentiate dementia from Alzheimer’s disease for their loved ones?

Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses slowly but gradually in a stereotypic pattern through the brain. It accounts for 70 percent of dementia. The further delineation of the dementia should be done by a physician familiar with these diseases.

The first words of your introduction are “dementia, dignity, and honoring God.” How do they fit together?

Honesty, that is what the entire book is about. The victims of dementia still possess an inherent dignity as made in the image of God. Dementia, though like all disease is part of living in a fallen world, is not outside God’s control. God can use it as a tool to demonstrate his glory.

You have a chapter on “What Should the Church Do?” Briefly, what can the church do for caregivers and families and spouses?

Christians need to understand, long before tragedy strikes, that God is in control and has purposes for what happens in our lives. We must learn to trust him when things get tough. Many people with dementia and often their caregivers are no longer able to attend services. The church must be in the home in some way ministering to their needs.

What few things should families know about “End of Life Issues,” the last chapter of the book?

Dementia is a terminal disease that will eventually take the life of its victims unless they die of something else first. In the later stages of disease the victim should not be subjected to painful life-prolonging (or death) delaying treatments. They should be allowed to die peacefully. Recognize that when the Lord calls them home they will be fully healed in body and mind.

Can we expect a hopeful or positive side to dementia as we know it today?

My book is largely about hope for the victim of dementia as well as caregivers. God has not forgotten them, he is still in control and is accomplishing his purposes in their lives. From a medical perspective God is allowing us to develop new medications which may, in the next few decades, significantly impact the course of many kinds of dementia.


Dr. Dunlop notes that one of the often-asked questions he gets is “Are people with dementias still real people?” To which he responds: “They certainly are, but they are sick people. They still reflect the God in whose image they were made and are still of immense value in God’s eyes. One of our problems is that we put too much value in our own intellects.”

John Dunlop has practiced medicine in Zion, Ill., for 37 years and currently works with the geriatrics group associated with Yale Medical School. He is board certified in geriatrics and has a master’s degree in bioethics.

Photo source: istock

Ronald Keener

Ronald E. Keener was editor of the national business and leadership magazine, "Church Executive," for eight years, and writes from Chambersburg, Pa. His church interests lie with congregational transformation, church health movement, church strengthening and revitalization and reporting on churches that have not just survived but thrived. 


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