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Alzheimer’s 101
AD is a growing problem, expected to be more prevalent among Baby Boomers. You need to be prepared to minister to them and their families.

Imagine you’re on that old game show Family Feud and you’re asked for the top five lethal diseases. Would you guess that Alzheimer’s Disease belongs on the list? If someone lives to the age of 85, they have a one in three chance of acquiring the disease (Alzheimer’s Disease will be abbreviated as “AD” for the rest of the article). AD is a growing problem, expected to be more prevalent among Baby Boomers.

The devil likes nothing better than ignorance.

Today over four hundred thousand Canadians have AD; that number is expected to double in two decades. Researchers also fear that people will contract the disease earlier. Put another way, there are people in your congregation with this disease. You need to be prepared to minister to them and their families.

This is just a primer, arising from personal and pastoral experience. Proverbs 19:2 says: “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” Here are seven things to do and seven not to do, if you wish to heed the proverb.

Seven things to do

1. Learn: The devil likes nothing better than ignorance. AD is not simply “forgetfulness,” although it involves that. Familiarize yourself with AD’s stages. Each poses its own particular challenges. Be aware that people as young as thirty acquire AD. Discover what is believed to be the process behind AD. Your vocabulary will grow, as will your understanding and compassion. Learning risk factors could help you avoid developing AD. See resources listed at the bottom of this article.

2. Offer help: Have coffee or do something enjoyable with a friend with AD, allowing their primary caregivers time to themselves. As a pastor, I have buried far too many caregivers who have given of themselves sacrifi cially—literally. Providing respite to caregivers is crucial to helping them keep their loved ones at home longer. Staying in familiar surroundings improves the AD patient’s quality of life. Your gift of time is one of the most important things you can do.

3. Donate: Research is costly. Partial cures with limited effectiveness often cost more than complete ones. The reality is there are currently no cures whatsoever for AD. We can simply slow the disease’s destructive action. The chemical process behind present front-line medications like Exelon, Reminyl and Aricept is like putting a wad of bubble gum on a leaking gas tank while you’re driving. It is better because you don’t lose gas as quickly, but you are still going to run out faster than normal.

4. Volunteer: Your local Alzheimer’s Society needs your help. It can be as simple as driving someone to various classes, lectures and meetings. These are essential to a caregiver’s ability to care effectively for their loved one and take proper care of themselves.

5. Take action: Know the ten signs of AD. If you suspect someone you love has the disease, be gentle. People may feel they are being “accused” of something. There is no defi nitive test for AD. It is what is called a “differential diagnosis,” that is, what is left once you rule out even nastier things. The volume of testing can be daunting, but early treatment can slow the decline. Even if the person lives no longer, they will live better, able to continue to love and be loved, to contribute to their families, churches and communities.

6. Pray: Do so intelligently and discretely. The first means knowing your friend’s personal situation and
being specific in petitions. The second means being careful not to use “prayer concern” as a means to gossip. Do not share your friend’s situation with anyone without getting their specific permission first.

7. Support: Stand behind caregivers in whatever decision they make, short of active euthanasia. They have enough stress without your trying to second-guess them. When it’s time to transfer the patient into an institution, offer emotional support and concrete help with the move. A “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) order is not euthanasia. Often patients decide this for themselves before losing their faculties. Declining to intervene during heart attacks is nothing like injecting lethal overdoses of medication. Believing in the resurrection should prevent us from insisting on maintaining a vegetative bodily existence when a person’s personality is long since absent.

Seven things not to do

1. Avoid your friends: They are changing, but they need you. Is it easy? Often not, but few important achievements in life are. As Christians, we have spiritual resources that others don’t. If anything, we are better equipped to handle tension than non-Christians. Odd behaviour will almost certainly emerge. This is not the person’s “true nature” coming out; the disease is altering them. Otherwise godly people may act inappropriately as the disease takes its toll.

2. Blame God or the devil: You may mean well by insisting that this is “God’s best” for them, but that often succeeds only in making God seem nasty. If God chooses not to heal, pray that He “redeems” something out of the situation. At the other extreme, trying to convince the person and/ or caregiver “not to speak of it” for fear of bringing curses on their life grants the devil too much power. True, we create problems for ourselves by focusing on the negative, but, on the other hand, your friend and his/her spouse (or children or parents) need you. Denial, even if based on theology, is just as much abandonment as physical absence.

3. Insist on a “cure”: Well-meaning folk often inundate AD patients and their families with all sorts of diets or supplements or potions. It is one thing, as a cousin of mine did for us, to buy a couple of nutritional books, and another to insist that if the patient “just follow this routine,” AD will “vanish.” Eating certain foods provides nutrients that may maintain function longer, but there is no “magic cure” (whether it is eating uncooked food or taking megadoses of vitamins). Keep perspective: unrealistic hope is worse than useless.

4. Talk as if to a child: Sure, they are losing ability, but they are still humans, made in God’s image, and worthy of respect. Talking slowly, clearly and with simpler words need not mean talking down to them. This is a question of dignity and respect.

5. Be pushy: Paul says love does not insist on its own way (see 1 Corinthians 13:5). Even if you know you’re right, use discretion when dealing with folk in pain.

6. Focus on the disease: One of the dangers of gaining specific knowledge is losing focus on the person. We are “people people” because our God is. He deals with us as individuals, not “sin situations” in need of generic correction, but as particular people with specific sins in need of restoration. Following that pattern, we need to work with AD friends as individuals, never losing sight of their individuality and humanity.

7. Talk of the disease’s “progressing”: This is common wording, even used widely by the medical profession, but it is denial behaviour. It is trying to sound cheery when things are really not doing well at all. Say instead that the disease is “following its course” or it is “moving along its path.” This acknowledges that the patient is actually getting sicker, without rubbing the patient’s and caregivers’ noses in it.

Mark Steinacher is a member of the faculty of Tyndale Seminary and holds ministerial credentials with the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. His academic interests include pacifism, the doctrine of the church, Canadian church history and the doctrine of the end times. Married to Brenda, he lives in Brantford, Ontario.

Originally published in The Messenger, April 22, 2009.

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