Years ago I worked in a church institution with a number of people on my staff. One of the children of one of the employees decided to cohabit. At the time that was much less common than it is today, and in Adventist circles in particular, it caused many eyebrows to be raised. One of his colleagues was very clear: Such a thing could not be condoned! But what happened? A little later the daughter of this colleague decided to move in with her friend. When I asked him how he felt about this, he admitted that he was not really happy with it, but that he understood why his daughter had made this decision. In this case there were some valid reasons, why his daughter and her friend would share a house (and a bed) . . .

I remembered this incident when last week I was reading a book on dementia ((John Swinton: Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Eerdmans, 2012). The book had been for a few months already on my pile of ‘books to read’. Why had I ordered it from Amazon? I had seen the title in the recent catalogue of Eerdmans Publishers and the description intrigued me. Dementia—sooner or later in life we will be confronted with this issue and most of us ask ourselves, as we become older, whether that might eventually be our personal fate. And then one asks oneself: What in fact is dementia? It is really strange that something ,that is so ubiquitous, is nonetheless so unknown.

In his book Swinton pleads for a new approach towards the treatment of persons with dementia. He refuses to call them ‘patients’. He says: The moment you label this people as ‘patients’, they become ‘cases’, and they cease to be ‘persons’ with whom you want to maintain a meaningful relationship. Swinton does not want to define dementia primarily in terms of ‘defects’ and of what is lost, but rather in terms of what still remains.

Swinton refers to the standpoints of others. The well-known, radical (non-Christian) ethicist Peter Singer is of the opinion that the life of persons with serious dementia no longer has any value. It is morally permissible, maybe even desirable, to end their life. But he felt it impossible to remain consistent in his views when his own mother became a victim of dementia. When that happened, he wanted the best possible care for her. In an interview he stated that he would never be able to end the life of his mother.  Why not? the interviewer asked, while pointing out that this was a very inconsistent attitude. Singer’s only answer was: ‘She is my mother.’ This woman was no an abstract ‘case’ but a person of flesh and blood.

The view of my esteemed co-worker with regard to the cohabiting of an unmarried couple changed drastically when it concerned his daughter. The former rational arguments lost most of their force, and he could not longer operate with a detached scheme of 100 percent wrong or 100 percent good. Likewise, a totally new situation arose for Peter Singer when, according to his rational theories, his own mother became a rather likely candidate for euthanasia. At that moment other considerations took over.

Quite often the arguments for various ethical standpoints are in themselves correct. Often very convincing texts from Scripture can be cited. But things change when we are dealing with human beings who are close to us, whom we love and mean far more for us than some hypothetical ‘case’. But, are we allowed to think like this in the context of the church? Should we not expect that the standpoints of the church (which are supposedly biblical positions) are always applied, since they are principles. And are we not often told never to compromise our principles?

Or should we leave some space for other considerations? Should a church that claims to give priority to being ‘followers of Christ’, not put the care and love for a human being above the application of laws and rules?

Surely, rules and laws cannot be simply ignored. After all, Christ himself stated clearly that every little detail of what God did reveal about his will has remained valid. But the life and ministry of our Lord also demonstrated that the happiness and well-being of human beings should always have priority. And, in particular, the well-being of those whom we love and who have committed to our care.


2 thoughts on “Dementia

  1. victor153

    Interesting, we started a conversation in the BUC about including or baptising people associated with the church who have a mental disability. All kinds of people saw fears and threats. Our cognitive belief orientation seems limit our capacity to simply accept people for who they are.

  2. Weiers Coetser

    I see two agents in this article – The amnesiac person who “forgets” to apply principles consistently based on a level of subjective involvement in a situation; and a “clear thinking/compassionate” person who resists naming similar “potential inhibiting/debilitating” conditions and chooses to deal with the person as a human being. I think there is an interesting tension between the two agents. Can one apply the principles espoused in the article on the relationship between these two agents?

    When Paul says, for example, that we should not cause a weaker brother to stumble, that tension is again apparent. We do have a need to name the condition. I often remind people that quote that text to me (usually in an attempt to keep me in line with a harsher, more legalistic set of practices) that one of the agents is obviously “stronger” and the other agent is “weaker” and I ask if they would prefer to be stronger or weaker? (I think people get this one wrong all the time.)

    So when I deal with an “amnesiac” friend, who often acts in a way that Paul would describe as “weaker” it probably helps me to resist naming the condition, and to find creative ways to engage with the person behind the condition. This is probably what you have been saying all along. Thank you. It gives me the courage to keep engaging.

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