Picking up my stethoscope, I walked down the well-lit hallway to see my next patient. I stepped out of the noisy bustle of the emergency room and into the stillness of room C15. Mrs. Smith, who suffers from dementia, lay on the gurney dressed in a pastel-green gown. She slightly turned her head as I entered but otherwise didn’t respond to my questions. Tucked in the corner, her husband sat. He looked exhausted. It had been a long night, a long month, a long year. After finishing the exam, I left the room with a new understanding. I didn’t have one patient, but two. Mrs. Smith and Mr. Smith both needed care.
Dementia, a brain disease that impairs cognition with effects on memory, behavior, and decision-making, afflicts 16 million people in America. But it also affects their families and friends. The typical caregiver is a spouse (25 percent), daughter (39 percent), or son (17 percent). As dementia progresses, caregiving grows into a full-time job. It’s so easy to focus on the dementia sufferer who requires attention—and forget the caregiver who sits in the shadows.
Caregivers, I want to encourage you by recognizing your challenges, exploring biblical comfort, and suggesting practical tips to care well for your loved one.
It’s So Tough
Caregiving for a dementia sufferer is physically demanding. As dementia progresses, caregiving needs multiply. Daily activities like brushing teeth and combing hair take longer. As a caregiver, you might encounter physical limitations (like Mr. Smith being unable to lift Mrs. Smith in and out of the tub). When your sleep is interrupted, you suffer a greater physical toll. Many with dementia struggle at night with sleep from sundowning and increased confusion in the darkness. The constant needs compound in loneliness and isolation. It’s a huge challenge to maintain friendships and church involvement when you cannot leave the house.
Like many caregivers you may be spiritually drained, wondering if anyone else understands your life and feeling guilty for thoughts of anger and resentment. Here in the desert, you can find rest in the shade of God’s right hand and comfort at the cool springs of his Word.
Weary Servant, Hope in God
Doubt thrives in isolation, but God is your “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). God is not just a cheerleader on the sidelines; he’s an active participant with you. He’s caring for you while you’re caring for others. He is “with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). These promises apply not just to his presence but also to his power. As burdens become heavier, his grace abounds all the more as he supplies you with “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:19). The Lord provides both the promises and the power to serve him.
God is caring for you while you are caring for others.
One way to serve God is by caring for others who bear his image. Every human receives worth and value from the Creator (Gen. 1:26), who weaves together each of us in the womb (Ps. 139:13). Your service through caregiving is often done in secret—but God sees and rewards you (Matt. 10:42). He refines and realigns your motivations toward him and away from appreciation from men.
Practical Help for Caregivers
When your heart is centered on God, you can apply practical wisdom in caregiving.
First, consider ways to cultivate thankfulness. Yes, caregiving can be a challenge, but don’t miss the moments of blessing in a smile, a retold story, the grasp of a hand. Write these down to help you remember the little gifts of encouragement God supplies.
Second, display reminders of God’s Word all around to encourage you and your loved one. If the dementia sufferer is a Christian, select well-known verses he might have memorized in childhood. Such early memories stay well preserved.
Third, involve her in your devotions. Read Scripture together. Sing together. In dementia, musical memory remains intact and accessible. Leverage the gift of music to bring joy and recount gospel truths.
In caregiving, self-sufficiency and heroism can creep in so you think you’re the only one who can do it and do it right.
Fourth, involve others in caregiving. Reach out to your church community and pastors to share what’s going on. Do not remain in isolation. Give others an opportunity to serve alongside you. In caregiving, self-sufficiency and heroism can creep in so you think you’re the only one who can do it and do it right. Be humble enough to know your limits; be open to help from others. Ask if anyone else at your church has walked through the same with a loved one. Others can be a comfort and a resource. Learn about resources in your local community through respite programs. And remember the importance of finding spiritual rest for your soul in conjunction with physical respite.
In the hospital, Mrs. Smith checked in as a patient while Mr. Smith signed in as a visitor. One rested on a gurney while the other sat in a chair, but both needed care. God, the great Physician, knows the needs of both, the first patient and the second one.