A member of our congregation, Florence Miller, who works in the Altzheimer's unit at Sunrise Senior Living sent these Advent thoughts:
I recently was given some materials from a training a close friend attended on the mind and spirit of the person with dementia. This inspired me to report/write about it in an article I was to create for the Sunrise newsletter. The thoughts moved me and are a part of my prayer this week as we end the liturgical year and I take time for remembrance, letting go, and silence in the presence of God.
I've attached the article and hope it speaks to you of the deep silence we come from and go back to, of the messages of the ancient prophets of all religions and their relevance to the spirit in us today. Our lives are so short. Our little piece, our little gift to the Great Life of the universe can be, for good or ill, so very long.
Recently I read a study guide entitled "When Those We Love Become Strangers", an exploration of how we care for persons with Alzheimer's and dementias. It reminded me that in biblical times 'age' was often synonymous with 'wisdom'. Elders were leaders and judges. They demanded respect. Leviticus states "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old." But since memory is indispensable to wisdom and leadership, what happens when one cannot function as an' elder' ?
When Moses descended Mount Sinai with the ten commandments, he heard the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf and was so deeply angered that he threw them down, shattering them! Later the sages gathered the shards and placed them in the Holy Arc with the whole Tablets that Moses got when he went to Sinai the second time. Thus Rabbi Ben Levi said, "Take care to respect an old person who through unavoidable circumstances has forgotten what he knew, for scripture says that both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets were placed in the Holy Ark".
The elder who has lost his/her memory is compared to the broken shards of the tablets - no less sacred as a result of having been shattered. The body is present but the memories and personhood have been shattered; yet they are the creation of God deserving of respect and tenderness. This is often very difficult yet can be seen as our call in our effort to provide home, comfort and respect to our residents.
Psalm 88, a lament, goes in part,
Oh Lord God...my soul is full of troubles
and my life draws near to Shoal
I am counted among those who go down to the pit
I am like those who have no help
like those forsaken
like those whom you remember no more.
You have put me in the depths of the pit
in the regions dark and deep...
You have caused my companions to shun me
you have made me a thing of horror to them
I am shut in so that I cannot escape
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you.
Are your wonders known in the darkness
Is your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Is this the cry in the heart of those struggling with Alzheimer's? Are these the thoughts of the daughter sitting helpless in the presence of a mother who has become a stranger through dementia?
I believe this is the profound task we have: to acknowledge the pain. And I believe it is a profound act of compassion to find ways to 'be with' the resident or family tenderly in this pain. I hope we strongly resist the temptation to trivialize, deny, or repress the harsh reality of those who find themselves in this difficulty. We can do nothing more or less than to break the silence of suffering with acknowledgement and understanding and share it by listening, by forgiving the reactions we often encounter, by comforting ourselves as we live in the presence of all this loss. We can be thoughtful and appreciative of our fellow workers with the relief of humor, a hug or a word of encouragement. We can do this and be made whole and full ourselves through the doing.