I have heard from a few people with relatives in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and some have asked, “Does it matter what you say?” This seems to come up especially with regard to general conversation and prayer: With the person they knew slipping away more and more, did it really matter if the caregiver/loved one talked about their day, their lives, or talked about faith and God.
The experts will say that each case of Alzheimer’s is different, and that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to much of anything as the disease takes its course. What I experienced with my father was a kind of anomaly – some conversations were nearly impossible for me to follow while others contained little windows of lucidity and understanding. And I could never tell which it would be. A word might trigger a very cogent memory, something that gave me more information about family history or another subject. Other times, I might start talking about something, and my father would respond with a question completely unrelated to anything in my particular universe, let alone what I’d been talking about, and the conversation would become the equivalent of a wild race through a cornfield maze.
Near his last days, I began to read up about different thoughts concerning spiritual care for those with advanced dementia. Given a person might not be aware of what is going on around them, does it matter if he or she is given the opportunity to make a final confession, be prayed over, or, in the case of my (and my father’s) Catholic faith, receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick? I understood that, ideally, these spiritual activities are best administered when the person receiving them is aware of what is happening. But spiritually, I know that God works in and through us, and for us, even if we are not able to move or communicate on our own.
A few days before my father died, I asked a local priest to visit him. Amazingly (as only God can be amazing), my father made the sign of the cross as the priest prayed with him. It was one of those rare windows of lucidity at just the right time. And peace settled in.
So, does it matter what you say? Does it matter whether you pray with the person with advanced Alzheimer’s?
Each case is different, of course. But I would day, “yes.” Yes, it matters, not so much for you to have a conversation with your loved one or to engage in common prayer. But, it matters for the person with Alzheimer’s, who is still living, loved by God, and in His hands.
Blessings for the day,