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John had been struggling with Alzheimer's disease for several years: first the forgetfulness, then the confusion, and now complete dementia accompanied by seizures of increasing intensity. As we sat together in his room in the Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, New York, while the end of his life approached, he was oblivious to his surroundings and even to himself. His body, once strong from years of farming, was wasting away, but he still raged violently against his constraints. It took all my concentration to read aloud one of his favorite psalms and pray for him as his frenzy filled the air and almost drowned out my words. When I left his room to meet his family coming in to visit him, I realized anew that the difficulty I felt as his pastor paled in comparison with what they were going through.
Alzheimer's disease plagues America as the fourth leading cause of death among adults. Families of patients tell moving stories of gradually losing their loved ones to it, and the pattern is basically the same: initial loss of memory with increasing confusion, then long years of life in a nursing home, and finally death. They speak of exhaustion, weakness, and fear as their father or mother, wife, or husband disintegrates with each passing month. Alzheimer's seems to strip patients of their humanness as they lose touch with where they came from, whom they love, and even who they are. Gone is any visible sense of self, and this simultaneous stripping away of selfhood and life makes Alzheimer's a uniquely fearsome disease. The Christian theological response to Alzheimer's encompasses several aspects of Christian doctrine, among them the relationship of body and soul in the self; suffering and the God of love; death, resurrection, and eternal life. To judge from the paucity of books and articles that deal with the theological dimensions of Alzheimer's, the Christian theological response to Alzheimer's is a difficult one. Yet this terrible disease that destroys memory can help us remember, and minister out of, the most basic truths of the Christian faith.
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