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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.