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The Lost and Foundness of Alzheimers

By November 12, 2012 4 Comments

One of awful things about Alzheimer’s disease is that you grieve the loss of a loved one while that loved one is still alive. It’s like you’ve lost someone and found someone else.

It doesn’t bother me that my mother has no idea who I am nearly as much as it bothers me that when we were at lunch when I visited her in California last week she picked up a cucumber slice from her salad, nibbled off its green edge and then hid what remained under a piece of lettuce.  Eighty years of life reduced to hiding food made my heart break.

It doesn’t bother me that my mother doesn’t remember her three sons, our wives or her grandchildren nearly as much as it did when I watched her play with a remote control dog someone had given her.   She was lost, the way a child gets lost with a new toy. I felt the weight of realizing that what made her happiest made me saddest.

I struggle with the theology of this. How much has God been involved with what’s happened? I’ve heard someone say “God is useless in moments like this,” and what that startling statement means is that God hasn’t stopped any of this from happening.  I struggle to reconcile both my belief in a loving God and my mother’s life-long Christian faith with who she is today.   

And yet, I realize for the most part she’s happy. I know other Alzheimer’s families have it far worse than we do, and maybe that’s still to come for us, but right now my mother isn’t agitated or upset.  How can losing your memory bother you if you can’t remember that you’ve lost it?

Alzheimer’s has made her less inhibited and more affectionate.  My mother was telling me what a kind and gentle man her father was (she still remembers her parents) and then she picked his picture up and said, “I love you so much I’m going to kiss you on your bald head,” which was followed by a big smooch. Compliments flow and she hugs and touches often.  I said, “I love you, mother” and she shot back, “I love you, too, brother,” which made us both laugh.  Was all that extravagant affection always there, hidden under other layers of her personality that are gone now?  Or is she just someone new?

A moment of inspiration came to me and I said, “Mom, do you know this?” and I started to sing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me . . .” A broad smile came over her face and she looked into my eyes and sang “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” 

We kept staring at each other, smiling, and I was thinking “I don’t remember staring into my mother’s eyes and smiling since I was a very young child” when my step-father’s voice started up, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. . .” and we joined him for that verse.  I glanced over at my brother on the other side of the room, and he was sitting silently with his eyes closed. When we finished the second verse my brother sang, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come . . .” and the three of us joined him for that verse.  Then, without pausing, all four of us sang, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, then when we’ve first begun.”

I once was lost but now am found. She beamed when we finished singing.  The other three of us sat in silence, stuck in the awfulness of the lost and foundness of it.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Beautiful post, Jeff. May you take comfort in the promise of Colossians 3:3-4 for your mom: "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."

  • Beth Jarvis says:

    What a tragically beautiful and redemptive tribute. Thanks for sharing your honest struggle.

  • Julia Turner says:

    When my father was going through a long slow process of dying, I visited him in his nursing home or hospital whenever I could get to California. I went one year in the late fall, when I was learning the "Amen" from Messiah. My father was a tenor, and always the soloist in whatever church choir he sang in. He was good; he coached me when I sang for my brother's wedding, and his support meant a lot, because otherwise nothing would have made me more nervous than singing in front of Daddy. Anyway, as I sat talking to him from the foot of his hospital bed, he lay there with his eyes closed. But when I opened up my score and started working on the music, singing as quietly as I could, his eyes opened and a bright, bright look let me know that he was right there with me. Calvin was right; singing does powerfully carry the love of God to us.

  • Mike Weber says:

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful post.

    Theologically, I wonder if we need to think about Alzheimers and aging in terms of the mortification of the flesh and the vivification of the spirit? Our culture teaches us that our value rests in our competencies, whether physical, intellectual or emotional. When Alzheimers or old age slowly strips us of our abilities we may feel as though our value is diminished. However as Deb Rienstra reminded us, that is not the reality. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ.

    I believe that aging is a part of the mortification of the flesh.

    "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." II Corinthians 4:16-18

    Aging and Alzheimer's is part of the process that prepares us for eternity. As my abilities are stripped from me, I am being taught to put no confidence in the flesh, but to set my hope upon Christ. This lesson is not primarily intellectual but existential. It permeates all of my being–mind, heart, body and soul. It is not so much something that I am doing, but something that God is doing in me. Mortification and vivification are inseperable. As I am being stripped, I am also being made more alive in Christ.

    This affects me in several differnt ways.

    First, it forces me to recognize my own mortality. I, too, am going to have some or all of my competencies taken from me as I grow older. This is not something to be resisted, but something to be embraced as an expression of faith and trust. One of my parishoners, a 90 year old saint, is currently dying from pancreatic cancer. When she shared this news with our Bible study, she prayed, "God keep me from being a grumpy old woman." I am praying her prayer for myself so that by the time I reach her age, God willing, it will have become a part of my character.

    Second, it allows me to grieve, but not as those who have no hope. I recognize that in my own diminsihment, and in the lives of those I love, God is still working his purpose out. My only comfort in life in death (in Alzheimers and aging) is that I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, and that all things must work to my good.

    Third, it requires me to treat others with dignity and respect. Even though the vitality and the abilities that marked our parents have changed, they are still the same persons they have always been–precious children, called and loved by God. As our parents age, I am called to honor them and to become the keeper of their memories and identity. They are no less my parents now than when they were vibrant and strong. God's work in their lives requires a faithful response in mine.

    One final comment. Calvin speaks of God's double justification–ie., that God justifies not only our persons, but also our works. Our abilities are a part of our personalities and yes, in spite of what I said earlier, our worth. However, it is not a "self-worth" that I have earned by my own efforts. It is a "justified worth" given me by God's own grace. God takes my stories, my memories, my successes and my failures and justifies them so that in the world to come there remains a continuity with who I have been in this life.

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