September 25, 2013
29 years ago I was ordained and installed as the pastor at Ross Community Presbyterian Church in Ross Township north of Pittsburgh, PA. There are many great memories I have of my first few years in ministry that have formed me and made me into the person I have become. And I am so grateful for the patience of so many folks in the early years who put up with my ineptitude. I remember my first weekend at Ross… I had my first funeral, wedding and baptism. I was scrambling for my seminary notes!
I want to mention to you a woman from those early years… her name was Anna. Anna was in her 80’s when I first came to know her. She lived with her sister who was also an elderly widower. Anna had never been married and she may never even have had a boy friend for all I know. She was one of those sweet women who always had a smile on her face. Her sister by contrast was not quite as… um… pleasant as Anna. Anna was devoted to her faith and to the church. Again, I can’t be sure but I would be surprised if she missed church 5 times in her entire life. That’s why it was so startling when her attendance began to waver. And then she was gone. I asked her sister one Sunday where Anna was and she told me that Anna had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t really go out any longer. Frankly, that might be the first time I had heard the term “Alzheimer’s.” Remember, this was almost 30 years ago. Before that we said people were senile, or had dementia.
I visited Anna and her sister in their home. Anna didn’t seem any different to me so I was confused about her diagnosis. It wasn’t long before her sister called me and told me that Anna had been admitted into the Alzheimer’s unit of a local institution. I was surprised and once again was wondering about her diagnosis. The first time I went to see her she didn’t know who I was. I was saddened and shocked. I didn’t know at the time that Alzheimer’s patients have “good days and bad days;” i.e., days when they “remember” and days when they don’t. I had seen her previously on “good” days. I visited Anna for probably 2 years and each time she had no idea who I was. And then one day the dam broke… or so I thought. I walked into her room and she said “Hi! How is everyone at church?” I was shocked. It had been so long since she knew me let alone what I did, or who I represented. I told her that the church was well and that folks said hello. She asked me if the Sunday School program was good. Again I told her that it was. And then she asked me this question: “And how are my parents? I haven’t seen them in a while.” In some way she identified me with “church” but she was a little girl again. My eyes filled with tears. Once again, she had the marvelous smile on her face as she awaited my reply. “They are well I said…” and I was sure they would be coming to see her soon.
Sometime during Anna’s stay in the home her sister died. I asked the staff if they had told her. They said “no” since it would only upset her for a few hours and then she wouldn’t have any memory of it. I hadn’t thought of that but I agreed with their wisdom.
Outside of my grandfather who didn’t know our family members for the last several years of his life, I have little personal experience with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Fortunately (if you can call it that) both Ellen’s and my parents died very suddenly so there were no long months or years of mental or physical decline. But I know that many of you reading this have struggled through very difficult times with parents or grandparents. You have watched them lose their memories, or their ability to walk, sit, eat, or cloth themselves. Those you have loved, those you remember as strong and wise… reduced to bedridden children or infants. Some of you have “changed” your parents’ diapers and faithfully fed them. Others have struggled over when and where to “put” them when home care seemed an impossibility. Maybe you have been a part of a family feud over what to do with mom or dad? The grief over these sort of things is incalculable.
I once asked my father what he wanted me to do if he couldn’t make decisions for himself any longer. I have had people criticize me for even asking the question. I would rather ask the question when someone is able to give some rational thought to it than deal with the guilt over decisions made by myself later with no knowledge of what they might have wanted. After first refusing to talk about it my father eventually said, “I don’t know, but I know that I do not want to be a burden to anyone.” My guess is most of us are there. We don’t really want to burden our loved ones. Living to the “age of burden” is in many ways the extension of medical technology. I don’t know what the solution is.
I do know this… even in the later years of her life Anna was sweet and kind. She was a little girl surrounded by friends. She brought joy and a smile to my face even when she no longer knew me. I suppose that is something that we can all hope for. My prayers go to those of you who might be in the midst of very difficult circumstances with loved ones.