This weekend after Mass I was speaking with a friend who has a close family member suffering from dementia, a condition which began to accelerate recently following a death in their family. Whether or not you know someone who is currently experiencing the loss of their faculties, chances are that, like my friend from the parish, one day you will. The best advice that I could give, in addition to prayer, was for her to find out about the experiences of others. And to that end, I recommended that she pick up a copy of My Sisters the Saints, a superb book by Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Regular readers will recall that I reviewed this book a few months ago, but I have two reasons for bringing it to the attention of those of you who might have missed it the first time. Colleen’s book, which is now in its 7th printing, has just been released in paperback today. In addition, it just so happens that September is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. These are two very good reasons why you should consider picking up a copy.
“My Sisters the Saints” is essentially a memoir, but not quite the sort you might expect from a media personality. For in writing about her own personal and spiritual journey, along with reflecting on the lives of those saints who have meant something special to her at different points in her life, Colleen also chronicles the decline of her father as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. His illness is not treated as a completely separate chapter topic, to be observed, addressed, and then put to one side. Rather, she addresses it as something that recurs like ocean waves, now stronger in their intensity, now more subdued, with quiet patches between, but endlessly crashing onto shore all the same.
In a passage from the book, Carroll Campbell notes a lesson that she learned as she grew stronger in her spirituality, even as she watched her father becoming physically and mentally weaker. “[O]ur culture has it exactly backward when treating such people as expendable,” she writes, speaking of those suffering from debilitating diseases like dementia, or the unborn, or the disabled, or the elderly, or the otherwise unwanted. “If productivity, efficiency, and rationality are not the ways God gauges a human person’s value,” she argues, “then they are not the ways I should measure it either. If childlike dependence on God is the mark of a great soul, then there are great souls hidden in all sorts of places where the world sees only disability, decay, and despair.”
Chances are that someday, someone you know is going to go down this same long, dark tunnel of unknowing. Whether the condition is brought on by a specific trigger, or whether it arises out of pure chance, the end result is inevitably the same. Dementia, in all its forms, is more often than not a bloody, smelly, heart-wrenching mess. We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it and say that it’s anything but.
However, we do need to learn how to see debilitating diseases or conditions in a way that brings us closer to God, rather than making us turn away from Him. We also need to look at these moments as pathways to becoming better imitators of Christ. And finally, we need the experiences of others who have experienced such redemptive suffering to give us at least some sense of how to go about attempting the task.
So whether for yourself, or for someone you know who might benefit from it, please do consider reading this vivid testament of one woman’s very powerful and deeply personal experience, shared through the prism of her Faith.