The Bible presents growing old as a normal process, but what about the realities of the aging process that so many adults face today, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Among the most troubling aspects of growing old is the frequency of senile dementia as human life span increases.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, one in ten people age 65 and older (10 percent) have Alzheimer’s disease and about one-third of people age 85 and older (32 percent) have Alzheimer’s disease. It seems eminently unfair that people so afflicted should be robbed of their intellectual, emotional and social vitality while their physical bodies continue to survive. Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly hard pill to swallow because the cause is unknown and it does not seem to be related to any particularly bad health habits. While progression of Alzheimer’s can be stalled, in part, but continued active involvement in mind-stimulating and physical activity, progression of the disease is nevertheless inexorable.
We all know someone, or of someone who is mentally degenerating. Also, we all know of one or more families who are facing years of long-term debilitating care for a loved one who is losing his or her mind. The only passage in the Bible that has to do directly with dementia is found in Ecclesiastes 12:1-8:
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” – before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain’ when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closes and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go their eternal home and mourners go about the street. Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit returns to God who gave it. ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless.’"
Solomon pained a poetical picture of what it’s like to grow old and die. It is not a pretty picture. Every part of the body is slowing down and declining – including the brain and the mind – until finally the golden bowl is broken.
The author of Ecclesiastes acknowledges the vexing unfairness from a human perspective, yet he offers wisdom to help us deal with it from God’s perspective, entailing the notions of “time and judgment.” With our inevitable disillusionment over the human condition – our universal depravity, uncertainty, and mortality – it is wise to remember that “for all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die; but for the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy has now perished, nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6). Knowing that they are accountable for their God-given portion, people should take joyful advantage of their gifts, talents, wisdom and opportunities sooner rather than later – before all opportunity to do so has ceased, before inevitable debilitation forecloses all opportunity.
One key to coping with a generative disease such as Alzheimer’s and dementia is to remember that God is good. No matter our circumstances, God’s character does not change. The God of the Bible is the God who is today. His promises still hold true. Our circumstances do not change Him or His purposes for us/ God is actively working “all things” together in His grand plan. The Bible tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). For some people, one of those “all things” is a degenerative disease. God does not say that all things are good. But He does work for the good in all things. God is a redeemer.
The Bible also tells us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). A disease does not change this truth. God still has a purpose for those suffering with degenerative diseases. When we remember that God is in control, that He is good, and that He is for our good, we can more easily accept the reality of a degenerative disease. We can trust that He is at work, even if it feels like we have been abandoned. Keeping the truth of God’s character and His faithfulness toward His own is vitally important for anyone affected by a degenerative disease, including family members. This allows us to keep a right perspective and maintain hope.
When a degenerative disease becomes part of our personal reality, like it was mine with my grandmother who passed away over 10 years ago, it is extremely difficult. Knowing that you’ll never be able to relate to them as you did your whole life and that the disease makes it more difficult for the person you love to function day after day is heartbreaking. But the reality of Alzheimer’s disease can remind us of the great hope we have in Christ. We can be angry and despair, or we can be reminded of what is truly important, press into the truth that we serve a God who loves us, and makes the most of every opportunity we’ve been given because we realize in a unique way that our time is limited.