My father received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis several years ago.
He and my mother have done legislative advocacy, in Columbus and Washington, for Alzheimer’s research. They’ve done the rounds of different medications to preserve memory, slow the progression of the disease in his brain. They've done physical therapy to help with balance and maintain muscle tone. And a couple of years ago, they moved into Copeland Oaks, a retirement community in Sebring, Ohio, about six miles from Alliance, where I grew up.
As a pastor, I’ve dealt with other families’ coming-to-grips with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in my churches; as a husband, I helped Linda care for her mother through a horrific degenerative neurological disease until she died in 2007. But this is the first time it’s been my parent, a member of my own family.
It’s not that, as a pastor, I’ve been able to maintain a “clinical distance” from others’ diseases and dying. I’ve always felt that would compromise good, compassionate care. No, this is different, not because all of a sudden it’s affecting me emotionally in a way that ministry does not.
It’s different because this year, when he took a turn for the worse and had to move into memory care from the house my mom and he were living in at Copeland Oaks, I wasn’t living in Colorado, where my family and I make our home. I’m living a day’s drive away, in North Carolina.
I’m serving an older congregation, in an area teeming with retirees—people well acquainted with Alzheimer’s and who encouraged me to make the trip last week, almost on the spur of the moment.
Because they know life is short, family matters, and our existence can change in a heartbeat.
It’s not that younger congregations can’t care like this—all churches have caring as their mission, and real human lives can be rocked by disease and tragedy at any age. It’s just that at this point in my life, I could never have engineered better circumstances to help me through this. Prayers buoyed me through my trip up and back Wednesday through Friday; countless people asked about my parents, my brother and sister and me on Sunday morning when I was back in the pulpit. And not only was I not alone, but I felt the power of God in community as congregants ministered to me.
Healing comes in many forms. This congregation in Tryon has healed many of my trust issues in relationship to church.