Treasure Valley Prays

When Memory Fades

dementia
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.
Psalm 71:9,17-18

We visited her on the farm year after year. She arose at 5 am, braided and rolled up her long hair, wrapped her body in an apron, and spent the next fourteen hours (save for a mid-afternoon nap) living and working in her kitchen. *Suddenly (it seemed sudden to me), she was in her late eighties, living in a nursing home, and calling out for my cousin to come in from chores and eat supper. Dementia. I no longer knew how to talk with her. Thankfully, my mother knew to sing. Our family joined in singing her favorite hymn in four part harmony: Children of the Heavenly Father. And she was with us – if only briefly.

I was nervous when I began visiting people in memory care as a hospice chaplain. What would I say? How would I find ways to connect? Thanks to hours of training with Eric Collett (CEO: A Mind for All Seasons – Boise), I have experienced extraordinary moments with people living in memory care units across the Treasure Valley. In fact, I miss them most in these pandemic times. When I next visit, I will be a complete stranger and trust will need to be re-built.

Mary was a devout Roman Catholic, having worked in her parish where she also served as a lector and choir member for decades. In our early visits, she told me snippets about favorite saints, scriptures and hymns. She always made the sign of the cross when we prayed together. Until she didn’t. During our final visit, I asked her how things were with God. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and said, “I’m worried about that.” When I asked her to tell me more she replied, “I can’t remember what I remember.”

So I helped her remember. I remembered aloud the stories of faith she’d shared with me, I prayed aloud familiar words and marked her with the sign of the cross, assuring her of God’s abiding love. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she said, “Thank you. Now I can sleep tonight.”

Somewhere in her being she remembered. She simply could no longer access God’s wondrous deeds; she was no longer able to “proclaim God’s might” to future generations.

In reality, she likely remembered our final conversation for about 90 seconds; the endorphins would last longer.

A widow recently said these words to me: “I lost my husband three times: first, when his dementia set in; then when he moved to memory care; finally, when he died. Denise Cooper, a journalist and writer, left her home and work to move in and care for her parents, both of whom live with dementia. She says this: “It’s like watching the people you love die over and over and over (Terrible, Thanks for Asking” podcast – December 11, 2019; host: Nora McInerny).”

Loving someone with dementia is not for the faint of heart. And, as we know, it is a disease that may also affect people in mid-life. Like cancer and COVID-19, it doesn’t care who you are.

We have available to us a beautiful prayer written by Mary Louise Bright – a remarkable hymn writer of our time. If you have an Evangelical Lutheran Worship, book, you can see for yourself: When Memory Fades #792. I’ve included a link to a youtube video as well.

Let us pray...(verse 1)

When mem’ry fades, and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused. O God of life abd healing peace, empow’r us with patient courage, by your grace infused. 

For your consideration...

Your story is woven into the fabric of faith.
Write your memories for your children or friends.
Start with one idea for each day.
My favorite teacher was…
My greatest regret was…
One time I felt God’s embrace happened when…

For further reflection...

The following passages are referenced in the hymn:
Psalms 31 & 36:9
Jeremiah 29:11
2 Corinthians 12:9
Hebrews 6:10
Romans 8

* *Eric Collett teaches dementia is present ten to twenty years before symptoms appear.

Kari Sansgaard

Kari Sansgaard

Chaplain, Lighthouse Hospice – Meridian, ID

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Connie

    It sounds like you have a good listening ear and are in the profession you should be. Your loving care of Mary to remember for her was such a blessing for her. I can imagine it would be frightening to have that happen where you don’t remember. Thank you for your comments.

    1. Kari A Sansgaard

      Thank you, Connie. I am eager to see people in memory care when it becomes safe. I do indeed love my current call.

  2. Sally

    Kari- How I miss your wonderful messages and you! Thank you for these words and your ministry!

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