By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published September 19, 2019
When I enter the dining room, I see her sitting hunched over in her wheelchair by a table where three other ladies await lunch.
“Hi, Mom, it’s Lo Lo!” I enthuse.
Her facial expression doesn’t change, but there’s a tiny flash of recognition in her eyes.
This is the usual way my mother-in-law reacts when I visit her in the nursing home. She has advanced dementia and has slowly declined to the point where she can no longer eat by herself.
Today I feed her spoonfuls of pureed chicken, broccoli, apple sauce and ice cream, while telling her stories from the past.
When my late husband, Jef, first took me home to meet her, she was bustling around in the kitchen, dressed stylishly with flashy earrings and bracelets dotted with colorful beads.
She was an art teacher and specialized in working with behaviorally disordered children, who were difficult to teach. But with her upbeat personality and determination, she managed to get through to them.
She told me once that some families didn’t celebrate the children’s birthdays, so she took cake and ice cream to school on each child’s big day to make them feel special.
When we visited, she would regale us with funny stories about the family, including her mother, Gladys, who was an expert at pie making. Like many bakers, Gladys sought perfection in her creations, and would become frustrated when she rolled out dough that wasn’t the right consistency.
At that point, she’d head outside and toss the rejected dough over the back fence, then return to the kitchen to try again.
As my mother-in-law listens to this story, she smiles. She chuckles when I tell another familiar tale about a camping trip when she and two of her children took seats at the breakfast table on the same side of the camper—and it started tipping over.
She’s mysterious in so many ways. How much does she actually understand? What does the world look like to her now?
As dementia progresses, its victims lose many abilities our society associates with typical human behavior, like reasoning, talking and remembering.
My mother-in-law has changed from a witty conversationalist and an avid opera lover into someone who can only say a few words.
Some societies define humans in terms of mental capacities, so dementia patients are in danger of becoming throwaways. Fortunately, the Catholic Church defines humanity in terms of “being,” not “doing,” because a divine essence, the soul, remains even when reasoning fails.
In countries like the Netherlands, where the majority of people have no religious faith, humans certainly aren’t seen as beloved children of God, possessing immortal souls. Their lives aren’t seen as precious gifts that come from God.
In fact, it was no big surprise when the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. And a doctor there was recently acquitted of a murder charge after giving a lethal injection to a woman with dementia, even though the woman was unable to consent at the time.
When she was young, my mother-in-law cared for children whom the world often defined as hopeless cases. She was able to break through the facade of rebellious behavior and reach the precious heart of the child within.
Let’s pray for the world today, that people with dementia won’t be declared hopeless cases, no longer deserving to live. Let’s pray the world will recognize that taking a life is never a solution to suffering and helplessness.
The only solution is helping others carry their crosses through the mysterious darkness of suffering that eventually gives way to the eternal light of Christ.
Artwork is by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.