My Church—St. John the Evangelist in Memphis, Tennessee—is part of a larger organization of parishes in the U.S. known as the Antiochian Archdiocese. (As in, “they were first called Christians at Antioch.”—Acts 11:26) The archdiocese publishes a monthly magazine called The Word. The January 2015 issue has several wonderful articles that I sat down with recently. You can actually read the entire issue here.
One article, “Personhood and an Aging Mind and Body,” was a paper delivered by Peter A. Kavanaugh on November 8, 2014 at a conference at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. Kavanaugh is a former chaplain at a memory-care facility in Boston and currently works as a healthcare professional at an assisted living home in Nashville, Tennessee. He explores
personhood and dementia “in the light of the Church Fathers, current medical research, and my personal experience in geriatrics.” You can read the entire article (it’s excellent) here.
Since I’ve been mostly long-distance caregiving for my mother since my father’s death in 1998, I’ve witnessed her decline as Alzheimer’s takes over her brain and bodily functions. I’ve read countless articles on Alzheimer’s and specifically on caregiving, but this is the best I’ve ever read. Ever. He begins with excellent definitions of dementia and then talks about how our assumptions about personhood are affected by cultural values—specifically the abilities to think and act. When dementia takes away a person’s ability to think and act for themselves, our culture says they’ve lost their personhood. Kavanaugh disagrees:
The Church Fathers, however, had a very different perspective…. They define personhood in terms of relationship… and on a psychosomatic union, that is, that the body and soul share an indissoluble unity…. This nature exists because we have a nous…. It is fundamentally that which links man with God.
When I try to communicate with my mother now, her mind can’t grasp most of what I’m saying, and most of her words are disjointed and nonsensical. But I know that she is still “in there” and I persist in communicating with her. As Kavanaugh continues:
When the body stops working correctly the soul remains alive and present, but it is unable to communicate or interact with the world effectively…. Dementia does not destroy a person’s nous, and an afflicted person maintains the need for relationships and the possibility of having them. Like the musician struggling to play music on a broken instrument, our memory-impaired loved ones are alive, but cannot play their song as effectively. As each string snaps one by one, certain strings remain unharmed. Our task is to concentrate on the remaining strings, and to learn to listen to the music.
Each time I visit my mother in the nursing home, more strings have snapped. But I’m learning to listen for her song and to sing it back to her. How? Not only with touch—rubbing lotion on her hands, kissing her, brushing her hair—but also with my own words, and with words from songs that historically belong to her. Church hymns. Scriptures. Songs like “You Are My Sunshine.”
The nurses, physical therapists and aids who care for my mother on a daily basis seem to know her song, and for that I am eternally grateful. They tell me anecdotes about “Miss Effie” on the phone and when I visit that indicate to me they are listening. And because of their training, they know instinctively how to let go of the broken strings. I’m having to learn this. Kavanaugh’s words help:
We learn from the elderly a good deal about what is means to be human. At every stage of the aging process, whether someone is in ideal health, or is at the most advanced stage of dementia, we encounter a living, breathing person, wholly in the image of God, and fully able to share a relationship with God and man. By seeing the person beneath the disease, we can learn to nurture a relationship which brings joy and healing…. Ultimately the old and aging give us an opportunity to learn to listen to the music.
Like the Doobie Brothers sang in 1972, “What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile…. It ain’t so hard to do if you know how…. List’nin’ for the happy sounds… And I got to let them fly.” Need help listening to the music? Listen and watch here. I hope my kids will sing my songs back to me when I need to hear them one day….