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Speaking to the spirits of those with dementia

It touches everyone.

It’s now touching our family.

If it hasn’t touched yours, it will.

Dementia is no respecter of persons. It visits royalty and it visits ragamuffins. And it is the trail of no return. There are no “dementia survivor” groups.

And while modern medicine seeks ways to cure it, members of religious communities seek ways to think and talk about it.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has many resources to help families cope with loved ones whose lights are dimming. But since I’m a big believer in “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), let me share some spiritual thoughts about dementia from an "outsider," a Christian physician named John Dunlop. His new book, “Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia” (Crossway, July 2017) has been causing ripples in the Christian community.

First, Dunlop says dementia is especially upsetting to modern society because we equate "dignity" with "self-sufficiency." But that's culture talking, Dunlop says, not Christianity. From cover to cover, the Bible is a book about seeking and getting help, not about being "self-reliant."

Relying on others is not a sin. In fact, it's humanizing. But when we talk about people with dementia, we see them as "less than human."

Our language gives us away.

We say “He’s not there anymore” or “He's just a shell now" or "The lights are on, but nobody’s home.” We think people with dementia have somehow become "less."

But inside that so-called "shell," Dunlop says, beats a spirit that is still alive and vibrant. The spirit doesn't collapse with the body. Keep your eye on that, Dunlop says, not on the dying brain.

Matthew Loftus, writing for Christianity Today, highlights an insight in Dunlop’s book that struck me with force in an article titled "The Beginning of Dementia Isn't the End of Grace" (published Aug. 18, 2017). It is this: Religion is filled with rites and rituals. It is filled with the repetition of hymns, scriptures and prayers — some repeated thousands of times. Use those well-worn repetitive elements of religion to connect with a person with dementia. The person's spirit still resides in those hymns and scriptures.

The idea called up a poignant memory of my own.

As my father lay dying in the hospital, my brother David visited him. Dad looked at Dave and said, “And what name are you traveling under these days?”

He didn't know his own son.

Yet, that same afternoon, Dad's doctor told me that he and my father spent a good deal of time singing the verses of “Lead Kindly Light” back and forth to each other.

My father's mortal mind was weak, but his "spirit body" was intact and whole.

Dunlop tells us to focus on that “vibrant spirit,” not on the "jar of clay" turning to dust around it.

I plan to do a better job of doing that.

And I hope others will try to do that, too, when I'm the one who asks, “And what name are you traveling under?”