Purpose, rather than despair

June 02, 2016

By Father Joseph Breighner
We humans have been told to “go bravely into that dark night.” Few nights are darker than the darkness of dementia.

I’ve journeyed with a friend in dementia for more than three years, and with my sister, Helen Eder, these past few. My fear in writing this for the June issue of the Catholic Review was that Helen would pass away by the time it appeared in print. That was the case, as she died May 14.

I met Jane at a liturgy I was celebrating for donors to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Jane had been a nun for 20 years, and then was married for 20 more. She and her husband had no children. Her brother in Rochester, N.Y., also had no children. With no children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, Jane was the “most alone” person I have ever met. I have become her medical power of attorney.

My sister, Helen, by contrast, had a wonderful husband, Mike, three great children, plus grandchildren and extended family and friends. Yet dementia still sneaked into her life.

Helen’s dementia manifested as depression. Jane’s dementia manifests as anxiety. While both were the same age, Helen was extremely physically feeble, and Jane can still walk on the treadmill.

All that is certain about dementia is that almost nothing is certain.

Since there is no cure, the best that health care workers can do is to medicate symptoms, frustrating, because each medication has side-effects.

Even memory units disagree on treatment. Some think the patient should be isolated from family and friends until they can make their dementia unit home. Others maintain that this is the worst possible treatment for someone in such a fragile state, and maintain that as much contact as possible with loved ones is essential.

I’m on the side of as much contact as possible, but I know that I’ve paid a price for this, not only in personal health, but also in how I’ve allotted my time. I’ve had to let go of giving the many parish missions, retreats and talks that once filled my life.

There are no good diseases. Most ravage our bodies. Dementia ravages both mind and body.

None of us knows what the future holds in store for us or for loved ones. But as I’ve said before, while we don’t know what the future holds, we do know Who holds the future. The greatest saints often experienced dark nights of the soul and body. Yet even in the darkness they could find God.

A little plaque that hangs in my room reads: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when God is silent.”

Since none of us knows what limitations may come our way, let’s resolve to do something meaningful with our lives. As Helen used to say when she was retirement coordinator for Baltimore County Schools: “Don’t just retire from something. Retire to something.”

As long as our lives are purposeful we know that we are about God’s work.

Finally, let’s resolve to pray for ourselves and all caregivers. If we just rely on our own human resources we are bound to burn out.

Allow me to close with a little prayer from the Upper Room prayer book: “All this day I am going to be a child of God. His love is around me. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I believe that for those who love God all things work together for good. I am going to rise above all worry, fretting, fear and hatred, and live in an atmosphere of spiritual serenity. Behind all that comes, God’s love and wisdom will be present to strengthen and sustain.”

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