I Am Not a Child……….

One of the most difficult things I face in my new position is listening to other staff members talk to the senior adult residents as if they were children. Yes, they have problems remembering things. Yes, sometimes their behavior seems childish or absolutely non-rational. However, they are still people. They are beings created in the image of God and deserve respect and dignity. They do not deserve to be talked down to or treated as if they are juvenile delinquents.

It is bad enough that they have lost their freedom. It is bad enough that they have to struggle to function and grasp why that are denied access to their rooms or limited in the decisions they can make. It is bad enough that they no longer can control some of their bodily functions and/or have difficulty in speaking. They do not deserve to be drugged, lied too, and/or treated with lack of respect.

So what do I do? I cannot judge or correct. I do not have the right and I do understand the stress that caregivers for people with dementia face. So, I pray. I try to model a different way of treatment. I make sure that I do not fall into an attitude of superiority. I seek to show love and respect at every chance I get. I seek to help and never to hurt of diminish the dignity of those who I have the privilege to serve.

I have made a discovery. I have been given a treasure. The people I minister to with dementia are some of the most loving, caring, honest people I have ever encountered. They have a spiritual nature that is seeking and willing unlike many church members I have encountered. They are deeply thankful when I listen to them. They are profoundly grateful for prayers and attention. They also have the ability to care for one another. They are not children, but they can be very childlike in the manner Jesus told us we all should be. I am so looking forward to visiting them when they are fully restored in our life that is and is yet to come.

I Do Remember God….

Today was a good day at the resident dayroom. I have been encouraging the residents to join me in observing the morning office. I had a group of nine that were very involved and aware as we practiced verbal prayer and Scripture. Most of those who participate are in the middle stages of dementia. Most of them will not remember their participation by the time afternoon rolls around. I always remind them that they might not remember but God does.

After the time of prayer I sit around with a group of five residents and talked with them about God and prayer. I understand that it is not wise to ask those who are suffering with dementia too many questions (questions can call confusion and it all draws their attention to there cognitive disability) so just use words like God, prayer, Bible, or some other faith related word and let them respond as they like. I have developed a close enough relationship of trust with these residents that they are willing to express themselves knowing that I will listen and not judge.

I started off with the statement. I remember when I began to realized there is a God. A couple of the residents began to talk about their memories of Sunday School. Another stated that she realize there was a God when God answered her prayer. She then stated, “In fact, that is when I feel closest to God.”

We spent forty-five minutes in verbal ping-pong over matters of God, faith, and love. My heart was blessed. I can remember when it was difficult to get a church member to talk five minutes about their faith. I am finding that being a spiritual director/life enrichment assistant to people with dementia to be more rewarding to my life than I ever felt as a “professional minister.”

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Amen.

I Cannot Remember, I am Afraid

She kept repeating, “I am so confused! I cannot remember! I am afraid!” She was near panic. She had not been this confused in a long time. She could not remember where she was. She would ask me this. I would answer and then she would ask me again, and again. Such can be the state of her reality when her dementia became cruel and unsettling. She was afraid she would forget who she was.

All I could think to do was to tell her that even if she forgot who she was, God would not ever forget her. This made her stop and think. She is very old. She is 94 years old. She has no one left. He dementia is not constant. She has good days and bad days. She can be very articulate and is always polite and caring, even when facing the fear she was facing now.

Reminding her of God’s love is the only thing that seems to help when these episodes arise. She is a woman of faith. She misses taking Eucharist. I am considering giving it too her even though my ordination is with a denomination that does not hold to the sacramental nature of this ritual that I have come to embrace. I am too old to pursue the path for recognition of orders or ordination in another mainline denomination. I have about decided that the concept of apostolic session is more man-made than God sanctioned. I know God has called me to pastoral care and the celebrant role even though I do not have the sanction of a bishop to authorize me to bless the elements as they become the living mystery that is the body and blood of our Lord.

But this dear saint needs the sacrament and in the age of ‘Covid no priest or elder can be present in the bubble in which she lives. There is only me. I seek discernment as to how I should proceed.

I pray with her. I start a word game with the other residents. She becomes involve and the fear and panic ends for now. This darkness will return. I will do my best to help her get ready. We will again talk of the day in which Jesus will return, if it just for her. She has hope. Somehow I know it will be enough.

Amen.

Desolation

The quick definition of the word desolation is, a state of complete emptiness or destruction and/or anguished misery or loneliness. Spiritual desolation is when one feels empty of spiritual help and or a misery that pushes one toward the darkness of depression.

Ignatius of Loyola understood desolation to be an attack of the Enemy of human nature. Ignatius defines desolation as the soul being disturbed and agitated, “without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.”

I have lost several battles with spiritual desolation and continue to struggle with it often in my life. Having an understanding what it means to be in a state of desolation helps some with the struggle. I have found my awareness of my entering a state of desolation helps this dreaded state from pushing me to near ultimate despair as it has in my past. Understanding and awareness of the presence of desolation keeps me from acting in a non-rational manner and from being as self-destructive in attitude and action as I used to be. Still, the struggle is just that, a strenuous and suffering in a spiritual struggle.

Ignatius, in his rules for the discernment of spirits, writes, “there are three principal causes for which we find ourselves desolate. The first is because we are tepid, slothful or negligent in our spiritual exercises, and so through our faults spiritual consolation withdraws from us. The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we extend ourselves in His service and praise without so much payment of consolation and increased graces. The third, to give us true recognition and understanding so that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to attain or maintain increased devotion, intense love, tears or any spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and so that we may not build a nest in something belonging to another, raising our mind in some pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or the other parts of the spiritual consolation.” I have found that the reason I end up in spiritual desolation is probably the first cause. As much as I try, I find it difficult in our world of deceptions, distractions, and delusions to maintain some of the spiritual practices I so desire. Even though I love God, desire God, and seek to be in God’s will I fall and fail time and time again.

So what do I do when I once again find myself in a state of spiritual desolation? I pray. I pray the Jesus prayer over and over.

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”

I also refuse to make decisions that require change, retreat from foolish illusions of joy, and I retreat from any anticipations other than knowing that the desolation will end. When I do not know, but it will end.

I now work with people who face not only spiritual desolation but physical, mental, and emotional desolation as well. It is their world. I see them and suddenly realize my desolation is not nearly as bad. The people I work with are basically prisoners. They cannot go and come as they want because the reality they live in is not an accepted reality to those who live without the struggle of dementia. The people I work with also love God, but there are times they forget who God is and so maintaining spiritual disciplines is not a reality for them. There are times they forget who they are or even where they are. Yet, these folks too, in times of lucidness, understand that this desolation will end. Many of them hold on to one hope as long as their minds allow them to do so in the midst of their suffering. They hold on to the hope of the resurrection.

I am beginning to realize that perhaps I am not helping them nearly as much as they help me.

When Jesus Comes Back

This Sunday is the beginning of advent. Advent is the season of remembering the promise that Jesus will come again and remembering the promise that was fulfilled by his birth. Advent is about hope.

When we speak of Jesus returning, many people think about the events revealed in the Book of Revelation. Many think the return of Jesus is about the end of the world. Yet, just this last week at the place I am now serving Jesus came back for three people.

Many of us forget that every human being is living in their last days. We may have thousands of last days, hundreds of last days or maybe just one. We do not know for sure when our life will end. Ultimately only God can either make or allow this end to take place.

This week, three people whose lives were lives of purpose, value, and love took their last breaths. A week ago I was laughing with one of them, rubbing the back of another, and talking to one about how wonderful of a life she had and was living. When I went to work today they were gone. Gone from my presence because Jesus had come back.

Their hope had become their reality. Happy advent saints!

Who Knew….The Path We may not Understand

Twenty-five years ago, I attended a seminar lead by Naomi Feil at the Prairie View Hospital in Kansas. She was teaching a method called Validation Therapy as a means of help people with dementia reach their primary goal, to die in peace. I took this seminar out of an interest in the spiritual formation of older adults. I was able to use some of the techniques of Validation Therapy at different times in my ministry serving local churches. I had no idea I would be using this material in a memory care facility at at this stage of my life. But God did.

Working with residents with dementia can be a frustrating and taxing experience. If you try to communicate with them using “dictionary words” or logic based in current reality you will get nowhere. In fact, you can push these poor people closer and closer to a state of vegetation. These individuals are no longer interested in your reality. They have a reality of their own. Learn their reality is the only way you can make progress. This progress may be a smile or simply an effort on their part to let you know that they understand you care.

Do these people have a notion of God? Do they have a spiritual life? Absolutely the do! As I have worked with very old people who are at different stages of dementia I have discovered that even in the last stages of dementia, the spiritual part of their being is active. We I say the Lord’s prayer with the residents, most of them join me either in the actual words or in the language they have created in their minds. When they hear hymns and spiritual songs they often respond physically in some way. When you pray with the individually they are very likely to squeeze their hand. The most important thing you can do when working with those who struggle with dementia is to let them know through you actions, emotions, words, and efforts that they are important. That they have value. You must validate them.

The other day, one of the residents who normally just complains of imagined problems, sleeps, or just sits and stares, suddenly began singing the Hallelujah Chorus with a beautiful voice and a deep emotion that brought tears to my eyes. She did this after I told her she still had purpose and could be a blessing. She would one day judge angels. I think she decided to join them in expressing the deep love for the Lord that was alive in her heart.

Amen.

What Can I Give?

She is almost 92 years old. She has outlived most of her family. Almost every move she makes causes her pain. She is in danger of falling so she mostly sits in her wheel chair. She has the beginning stages of dementia. She asks me, “Why does God keep me here?”

“I am of no use to anyone one, in fact, I feel like I am a burden.”

“Is there any reason for my life?”

What do you say to this person? I will tell you what I said. I told her life is not fair. I agreed with her life is difficult. I agreed with her that sometimes we cannot understand why God allows what he allows or acts as God acts. I then told her I totally disagreed with her self-evaluation of being worthless and with her idea that she had nothing she could give to God. I told he she could give to God something that no one else could give God, her faith!

I then reminded her of the story of Job. Talk about confusing. Job did everything right. Yet, Job faced horrible suffering and tragedy. Why did this happen to Job? I still do not fully understand, but one thing I do know is that Job did not abandon God. Job still gave to God the gift of faith. God blessed Job for this gift.

I have had to learn this the hard way. No matter how bad things get, no matter how unfair things seem, no matter how confused we are, or even how badly we hurt we can still give God the greatest of gifts, our faith and our love.

The dear saint to whom I was talking replies, “Thank you, now I understand.”

I Will Never Leave You or Abandon You- God

It had been a difficult morning. Many of the residents had not slept well the night before. Many were cranky and only wanted to sleep. Most were not allowed to go back to their room. It was my task to try to engage them in activities. The deck was stacked against me.

I tried everything I could think of. I put on music (love songs from the 50’s) but this usually effective tool did not work. I tried getting them involved in manipulatives and games. This worked for a short time but soon we were back to gloom and unrest. Even my normally faithful and active domino players did not want to play their favorite game.

Then, I decided I would read them a devotional. I hoped this would a least bring a positive presence into the living area. I announce what I was going to do (little response) and then asked them to pray the Lord’s Prayer with me. I began.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

As I spoke these words I heard voices joining in. Almost all the residents, even those in a near catatonic state joined in. Those with aphasia who could not control their sounds still formed the prayer on their lips. The tension melted and most of the residents listened approvingly to the devotion.

Deep within the hearts and soul of these individuals with differing stages of dementia the Lord still remained. Our Lord promised that he would never us nor abandon us. Even in the darkness that comes with dementia, God is able to break through, come from the heart and is expressed. I never cease to be amazed at this wonderful reality.

Sometimes spiritual direction is simply providing the opportunity for the light of God to shine through the challenges people face.

Working with Those Who Struggle with Dementia

I have accepted a position working with people in various stages of dementia. As some of you may know, there are four major types of dementia. I am working with people who are at various stages of all four types. My position includes being a chaplain, spiritual director, and life enrichment assistant to these individuals.

I accepted this position so I could continue my work as a spiritual director (who does not charge those whom I guide but do my work on the basis of gifts, and yes, I pay taxes on the gifts) and to model empathy and compassion to individuals who face a difficult if not frightening future.

This kind of work requires patience, a deep love of people, and the willingness to understand that success may only be finding you can help some of these souls smile. I have finished my first week and can honestly say this may be the most rewarding work I have been involved in since I was a chaplain at a children’s hospital (certainly more satisfying than working with church members who have no interest in spiritual matters other than telling a pastor how to do his job).

I knew going in that communicating with the residents of this facility would be a challenge. I have had to reintroduce myself to some of the individuals every day, if not every hour. I have found many of these people have lost hope. Some are very lonely and scared. Some cannot communicate other than through guttural sounds. Some cannot put words together that make any sense. Most feel as if their lives have no meaning and they have lost their freedom. Yet, when I ask them to join me in the Our Father, I am amazed at how many can say the words along with me. When I sing Jesus loves Me, many of them join in. And, to my great joy and surprise, as I seek to teach them the Taizé song, Jesus Remember Me, many have not only learned the song but sing it themselves during the day.

Yes, I do believe I am going to enjoy my involvement in this work.

Yes, I Believe in Angels

Today, will traveling at 70 mph (the legal speed limit) I was suddenly hit on the right side of my car by another car who had it a truck and then crashed into me. This car, driven by a man whom the police later arrested, hit my car so hard that it knocked it up onto the concrete barrier wall that separated my lane from the HOV lane. I felt my car was about to flip over when suddenly I felt the car stop its movement to flip, move off the concrete barrier, land in the right lane with no cars behind me, and come to a stop before it hit the car that had first hit me (this car had spun into my lane and had come to a stop). My airbags did not deploy. Had they deployed I could have been hurt badly, instead all I received was a dislocated little finger cause by the steering well and a completely destroyed (but insured) car (the driver of the other car did not have insurance).

I have no doubt I was protected by a guardian angel. This is the second time death was cheated in the last six months. I am grateful and amazed that I am still here. I also am certain I had help that I could not see and this was not simply a random act of luck. I am alive because of an angel.

I do not pretend to know why there was a divine intervention in my case. I do not know why some people die and others do not. I can only tell of my experience and give credit where credit is due for whatever the reason. I do not believe myself to be worthy of any special attention. I am a foolish man who has made way to many foolish mistakes in my life. Yes, I have been called by God into his service, but he has used a donkey for this purpose before.

All I can say is thank you Lord. Thank you my guardian angel.