Dementia, Dignity, and Honoring God

Modern medicine has made optimists out of us all.
Cancer? Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy frequently combine to leave the patient cancer-free or living well with the disease as a chronic illness.
Heart attack? Clot-busters, by-pass surgery, rehabilitation, and the patient returns to a normal life.
Dementia?  Well, that’s a different story.  Pharmaceutical options are disappointing, and there is no cure for the progressive downhill slide into confusion, loss of independence, and eventual death.

In Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, Dr. John Dunlop asks, “How can such a tragedy as dementia be dignified, and how in the world can God be honored through it?” He’s well-qualified to seek the answer to his question. As a geriatrician (a medical doctor trained to meet the special health issues of older people), he has worked with dementia patients and their families professionally. He has also experienced the challenges of dementia from the patient’s perspective as he walked that hard path with his mother, his father, and his mother-in-law.

The Science and Theology of Dementia

Judeo-Christian values support a position of respect for the dignity of everyone, rooted in our belief that people are made in the image of God regardless of whether or not they can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product. Since statistics show that, of those who live to the age of 90, nearly half will manifest some form of dementia, it is important for us to arrive at a right understanding of our role, as individuals and as the Body of Christ, in coming alongside patients and families.

Dr. Dunlop is careful to anchor his view of dementia firmly upon the foundation of Scripture’s narrative arc:  creation, fall, redemption, and future hope. Although dementia was not part of the “good” God declared in the very beginning, He has a purpose in all that He allows to happen. A stunning quote from Tim Keller brought this into focus for me:

“The evils of life can be justified if we recognize that the world was primarily created to be a place where people find God and grow spiritually into all they were designed to be.” (Loc 307)

With all the good that God has given to enjoy, I find myself imagining, at times, that I’ve been placed on this planet to be comfortable and to have my own way. Dr. Dunlop encourages his readers toward a trust in God that looks for purpose even in the midst of the horror of suffering that appears to be meaningless.

Understanding dementia requires an understanding of the human brain. I found this distinction among brain, soul, and mind to be especially enlightening:

“Our brains are packed with countless nerve cells, and the chemicals that go between those cells allow one nerve cell to affect another. This enables our brains to process and record our thoughts. But we also have immaterial souls, where our thoughts originate. Together our physical brains and our immaterial souls constitute our minds.”

Normal brains forget sometimes (especially as they age — cringe), but a diseased brain is comparable to an old computer with limited memory capacity. It is storing many old memories and loses the ability to store new ones. When memory loss begins to interfere with speech and cause personality change, it is diagnosed as dementia. Seventy percent of diagnosed dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, caused by plaques and tangles in the brain which begin to kill nerve cells and “lead to a deficiency of the chemicals . . . whose job it is to carry signals from one cell to another.” (Loc 730)

Insights for Families and Caregivers

Case studies of former patients are a valuable part of John Dunlop’s contribution to the caring community. Discernment comes into play from the very beginning, even in deciding WHEN to make a diagnosis of dementia. Some patients are helped by having a name for their confusion; others are sent into despair at the prospect of future loss. He recommends calling it “a memory problem” in the early days to allay fear, and stresses that physicians should communicate hope for a meaningful and enjoyable life in spite of deterioration.

Again, because he has seen the caring process from both sides, Dr. Dunlop’s insights are especially practical and helpful:

  • Try to share the burden of decisions and care for the dementia patient, even though it is usually best to have just one person be the primary caregiver and decision maker.
  • Do not delay in setting up a legally designated, durable power of attorney for medical decisions and in having a lawyer draw up documents to give supervision of the patient’s finances to someone else.
  • Notify spiritual leaders so they can be available for counsel and encouragement.
  • Maintain a regular schedule to help dementia patients get their bearings.
  • Over and over again, the author emphasizes the importance of respecting the dignity of the patient. When we serve a dementia patient, first and foremost, we are serving God who finds people so infinitely lovable that He joined us on this planet so that we could know Him. Those with dementia are whole persons, loved and valued by God.
  • Prayer is a spiritual resource which may help the one who prays more than the patient by graciously changing our attitude.
  • Remnants of pre-dementia personality may persist, but lack of inhibition may allow some previously suppressed aspects of the personality to present themselves with startling results.
  • Committed Christians may experience a sense of the absence of God as the ability to feel anything at all recedes.
  • Even the most habitually grateful individuals may become apathetic toward their caregivers, never acknowledging the sacrifice the loved one is making. Caregivers for dementia patients face daily challenges and deal with their loved ones’ meltdowns, agitated behavior, sleep disturbance, endless messes, and this is exacerbated by their resulting loss of contact with the outside world.  This amazing statistic is both startling and motivating to the Body of Christ to be offering assistance:  “Thirty percent of caregivers die before the patient for whom they are responsible.” (Loc 1027
  •  One way to connect with those who have dementia is to repeatedly tell them the stories of their life, emphasizing God’s part in bringing them to Himself and reminding them of our love for them. One of the greatest ways of communicating love to someone with memory loss is the gift of presence.
  • The church plays an important role in providing for the spiritual needs of dementia patients and their caregivers, but also in teaching what it means to be fully human, educating believers in an adequate theology of suffering, establishing believers in spiritual disciplines that will sustain them through hard times, and developing a culture that values serving and caring for “the least of these.”
  • Dr. Dunlop addresses end-of-life issues with answers to questions about appropriate medical care, the process of dying, and whether or not it is appropriate to limit life-prolonging care. His answers come from a biblical perspective coupled with a respect for both the sovereignty of God and the value of life. His position on end-of-life care for those suffering from dementia could be summarized in this way:  “Comfort is more important than length of life.” (Loc 2377)

Inside Dementia

After a certain point, it is impossible for a patient suffering from dementia to report his feelings from within the disease, but Dr. Dunlop shares empathetic insights he has gained from his work.  Dementia is constricting. Suddenly words do not work as effective tools for communication. It is not clear where the bathroom in one’s own house can be found. Life becomes small and boring as abilities and hobbies become unmanageable. People act embarrassed by the new you, so it’s easier just to withdraw. Everything is unfamiliar and, therefore, threatening. Frustration becomes a way of life.

J.I. Packer shares words that are applicable to both the dementia patient and the caregiver:

“The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.”
(Loc 1173)

I recently attended the funeral of a friend I’ve known for most of my life, but the beautiful memorial service was not the good bye. My friend had been slipping away from us into the fog of dementia for years, leaving us all feeling as if we had not had the opportunity to say a proper good bye. Even so, as we gathered, we remembered her as she had been, and we honored her as we thanked God together for the gift of her life, for the fortitude of her caregiver, and for the truth that our value to God is not tied up in how well we perform or how much we contribute.

By embracing biblical values, respecting the dignity of those with dementia, gathering around the caregiver as brothers and sisters, and placing our ultimate hope in Christ, we grow, God is glorified, and we are reminded in one more way that our eternal home is not to be found here on this planet where “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18).


This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Published by

Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

75 thoughts on “Dementia, Dignity, and Honoring God”

  1. Outstanding review and the book sounds like it should be in many of our libraries as well as the shelves of our church staffs. Thanks so much, Michele. I am forwarding this to a number of people. Blessings on your weekend💕


  2. This sounds like a wonderful book, Michele. As I’m currently on this path with my parents, I appreciate the insights you’ve shared here. For me, this one is a biggie: “One of the greatest ways of communicating love to someone with memory loss is the gift of presence.” I can’t do much, but I can be there, if only for a few minutes each day.


    1. It’s so hard to be serving aging parents and keeping up with our kids (who are learning how to drive!). Be careful of yourself in these days. I remember when my mum lived with us, there were times when I felt as if I was trying to ride two bicycles.


  3. Your review, this book … so rich and filled with compassion and insight, Michele. For sure, this is a heart wrenching disease. a very long good-bye.

    And this here, was superb and spot on, something I will carry with me –>’One way to connect with those who have dementia is to repeatedly tell them the stories of their life, emphasizing God’s part in bringing them to Himself and reminding them of our love for them. One of the greatest ways of communicating love to someone with memory loss is the gift of presence.’

    Michele, thanks.


  4. Michele, this is a beautiful and outstanding review. Having watched both of my in-laws struggle with dementia till their final days, it is such a hard and difficult road for everyone. I am definitely going to get a copy of this book. I am most grateful to have read this review! Thank you!


    1. Dementia is becoming a regular part of so many peoples’ stories. So sorry that you had to endure that — I found Dr. Dunlop’s thoughts on end of life issues to be especially helpful in understanding my own experience with my mother, even though I was reading it after the fact.


  5. Thanks for this thoughtful review. Dementia is so tough for everyone involved and as treatment for other conditions improves it seems to be something we are seeing more and more. I love the quotes you share and the reminder that God created us to know him and that even in difficult circumstances we can grow in that as we learn to depend on his strength in our weakness.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I saw your post come through and read the title and honestly waited a day or so before digging in. I have not had firsthand experience with dementia but several dear people in my life do and have. Dr. John Dunlop has great insight and words of wisdom from what you described. I love that he recommends the git of presence. I think we all can agree that is the best gift to give anyone.

    The Tim Keller quote really helps me as I’m processing my series on home. Was this quote in this book or from a different source? Thank you and happy Sunday!


    1. Yes, the Keller quote was in the book. I had never run into it in any of my Keller reading (which is not that much), but I was stopped in my tracks by it because it is such a readjustment of my understanding of the purpose of life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It really goes perfectly with my post for this Tuesday. You might see the quote again. I found out it is from Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.


  7. I was nt much aware about this disease. But its really painful for those who are suffering from this. Dr. John dunlop has great insight and describes all this with so much information. His advice can be helpful for many. #sundaythoughts


  8. Michele, I lost my aunt to this, and whenever I can’t recall something I used to know without thinking, it bothers me. I think this is one of the worst diseases, but I remind myself that nothing can separate us from God’s love.


  9. This sounds like a very informative and helpful book. It’s often hard for caregivers to know what to do as the patient deteriorates. It sounds like Dr. Dunlop has done his homework and has given some very helpful insights.

    Blessings to you, Michele, and thank you for sharing this book!


    1. I think his clinical experience combined with personal experience has given him unique compassion. He mentions several times that he is also interested in this subject because, genetically, he is pre-disposed to have dementia as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for sharing your insights on this book! A loved one has been suffering with memory issues for quite some time, and while a formal diagnosis has not been given, we don’t believe it will be long before it is. I’m grateful for these ways to help maintain dignity while expressing Jesus’ love!


    1. With my own mum, even though she did not sufferer from dementia, we walked the tight rope of trying to respect her autonomy while protecting her safety. It’s such a hard season to be caring for and responsible for a loved one. Blessings to you as you walk into this loving choice of caring for your family member.


  11. Your post is so helpful and encouraging. Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia is a book that is much needed these days. I agree that it is better not to rush to a devastating diagnosis, and rather to progress with a memory problem, building coping mechanisms in from the start. My late Mother suffered from a form of dementia (not Alzheimers) and we have an elderly friend with it at the moment. Thank you so much for sharing this post, and for being a part of Hearth and Soul, Michele. Have a lovely week ahead.


      1. It sounds obvious, but I truly believe that anything we have in our hands (or in this case in our heads) God will use. We need to be faithfully following Him, seizing every opportunity to make use of the beautiful gift of cognition, and practice trusting Him in small things so that when big things hit, we will have a track record of His faithfulness to fall back on.


  12. Sitting across from mama, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Sometimes I don’t know what I know.” Last year we lost the shell that was left of her but we celebreated who she was in the life of so many who came to celebrate her life of service. We knew who she was, even when dementia hid it from view, we knew. Thanks for this particular book summary, Michele.


    1. This is beautiful, Debby: “We knew who she was, even when dementia hid it from view, we knew. ” What a beautiful gift to have given your mum. Thanks for trusting this group of readers with your story.


  13. Thank you for the review, Michele. Dementia isn’t something you hear much about until it is affecting someone you know. It’s hard to watch someone you love “fade” away. I love that he points out the connection between the fallen world and the condition. It’s not how God intended it but He still uses it. Trusting God in the midst of the pain is another great point the doctor makes.


    1. Yes, I love that quote from Tim Keller. And I also appreciated Dr. Dunlop’s practical insights into end of life issues. There’s so much to consider when ministering to a loved one with this affliction. Thanks, Esther, for your input to the conversation.


  14. Sounds like a strong read, Michele, for a tough subject. The one paragraph mentioning how all our situations draw us to Him caught me. Yes, comfort is one of my, well, comforts. I dislike uncomfortable situations. But what if we’re drawn to Him? It kind of blows mind, considering it in the face of dementia. Keeping this in mind today, allowing it mull around my brain. Happy Friday! #faithonfire


  15. The book sounds like an excellent source of help. I enjoyed your review and could connect the points that you made to my mother’s progressing level of dementia. Thank-you for a great review.


    1. This is such good news, Marilyn — and I guess it proves the author’s point that dementia is becoming more of an issue for our aging population. Thankful to offer a resource for those who are needing support or encouragement! And I will definitely be “talking to you” later on this evening!


  16. What excellent book reviews you do. This is such an important book because the subject will touch us all either as a sufferer or a carer or friend. Would you mind to put this post in our Blogger’s Pit Stop again on Friday to give it some more coverage.
    Blogger’s Pit Stop


  17. Omg this is so well written. I also aspire to spread awareness of neurological diseases. Do also check out my first post and follow me as well. Appreciate it ❤️


  18. Thank you for reviewing this book and writing a blog post on dementia. My mom has Frontotemporal Dementia. I feel like I can relate to a lot that you wrote about! I love to see others blogging about dementia, but I wish we could connect on something other than dementia! This sounds like a great book. I will have to look more into this book.


  19. Hello Michele with one “L,” I read a quite a bit about dementia as my family has a strong history of Alzheimers. My mother died young, but she was always worried about it. My aunts had severe and early onset dementia- both in their early 60’s. I read the book Still Alice, and it scared me to death. I often worry that my turn is coming. Still, I look for the positive and pray for the best.


    1. I also read Still Alice – eye opening, but chilling. The author of this book also has a genetic predisposition toward dementia, and is mindful of it in his writing and living. One of the mercies of God is that we don’t know the future, but are able to trust Him for it.

      Liked by 1 person

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