Reprinted with permission from First Things.
The author of Psalm 71 begs the Lord, "Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails me." And in the Decalogue we hear this precept of the Lord: "Honor thy father and thy mother." Both the ancient prayer and the ancient command have been given a modern edge of urgency by the current increase in our life expectancy and the special illnesses that age brings with it. Among the most challenging of these illnesses is dementia.
A conservative estimate is that at least 30 percent of people over age eighty-five have Alzheimer's disease, the major cause of the dementia syndrome. The leading symptoms of dementia are, frankly, terrifying: loss of memory, of language, and of reasoning ability. We all feel at least a slight anxiety about dementia because these dreaded symptoms seem to assault our very identities, to dissolve the autobiographical narratives that constitute the very story of our lives. But are there hints of a deeper purpose underlying the universe even in the deep forgetfulness of dementia, hints for both those afflicted and those who care for them?
One lesson, for me, is that people with dementia remind us that we are all deficient in spiritual memory, that we are largely forgetful of the Creative Presence that set up a universe to give rise to creatures like ourselves. Religion is in large part an effort at memory enhancement through speech, symbol, and ritual. The Prophets were sent to remind Israel of its covenants with the Lord; Christians celebrate the Eucharist with the words of Jesus, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The Book of Common Prayer contains these eloquent words: "Heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; we do humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your holy spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our daily life we might not forget you, but remember that we are always walking in your sight."
St. Augustine is the great theologian of memory. His awe at human memory is clear in the tenth book of his Confessions: "All this goes on inside me, in the vast cloisters of my memory. In it are the sky, the earth, and the sea, ready at my summons, together with everything that I have ever perceived in them by my senses, except the things which I have forgotten. In it I meet myself as well. I remember myself and what I have done, when and where I did it, and the state of my mind at the time."
Augustine saw memory as an aid to our salvation. Despite all our false pursuits of happiness in possessions or accomplishments, our hearts remain restless, seeking true happiness in God, and to aid that search there is within us a "still faint glow of light" that is nothing other than a memory, however dim, of a blessed state of true happiness that preceded the fall.
Those whom severe dementia has made deeply forgetful do forget much that is crucial to life as ordinarily lived: they may even forget those who love them most, and this is terribly painful to the forgotten ones. Yet they may have fleeting moments of a "still faint glow of light" when they recall vague traces of those who love them. We, who love them and are forgotten, may have by analogy some deeper apprehension of the life of the loving but unremembered God who, if religious thinkers such as Abraham Heschel or the "process" theologians are correct, calls out to each one of us, "Forget me not."
Observers estimate, and my personal experience confirms, that 90 percent of Americans who are diagnosed with dementia pray. They are, it seems, thrown back onto whatever faith they have in the loving and beneficent purposes underlying the universe. They are shaken existentially, and many begin this final phase of their lives with a profound recovery of spirituality.