Monday, September 19, 2011

Alzheimer’s Disease and Our Christian Commitments

Listening to AM talk radio late one evening earlier this week, I tried dozing off to sleep as one of the shows had noted CBS correspondent Barry Petersen as a guest to discuss his recent book, Jan's Story. It is a hard to digest telling of his wife's ongoing struggle and fading of life with Alzheimer's disease. I suppose most of us are familiar with at least one person who has succumbed to this insidious disease. I lost my grandmother to it a few years ago after several years of diagnosis and my mother gave a considerable portion of her life to caring for her in those elder years. She lived into her early nineties before passing away with it but as with all cases of Alzheimer's, what is left at the end stages of such lives is really little more than an animated corpse of one's previous self.  Having conversations with the reflection of yourself in a mirror and having no idea that the person looking back at yourself is you is a frightening reality for many in such conditions. Add to that the lost communication or even the ability to acknowledge who and what you are and our comprehension of the devastation of Alzheimer's becomes a bit clearer albeit still beyond our own personal experience to grasp. Even the primary caretaker faces phenomenal life changes that are difficult to express appropriately. Mr. Petersen discussed several of these life changes and rather than drift off to sleep, I lay there thinking of this matter later into the evening.

It might have been the next day or two when I encountered a short article by Dr. Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary discussing recent controversial comments by Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition and "700 Club" television program. Dr. Moore was presenting a Christian challenge to Robertson's comment approving of the divorce of spouses who suffer from advanced stages of Alzheimer's. Moore's rebuttal of Robertson's position reminded me of Barry Petersen's comments concerning his current personal relationships. With his wife institutionalized at this point, Petersen met another woman with whom he established a personal and intimate relationship with and in his words, are now a family of three. I don't know what to think of that other than to suggest it strikes me wrong on every front. Robertson viewed the patient as essentially dead and with regard to what and who that person was cognitively, I suppose he is right in a sense. As I note, I use the phrase animated corpse as well. However, there is something more at stake than just an intimate and acknowledged relationship. Marriage is, as Dr. Moore notes, a type of the relationship Jesus Christ has with His church and that relationship is not destroyed or cast aside when one member of the church becomes "less useful". In that sense I can only second Moore's rebuttal and certainly in my own case, were such to occur, I could not turn my back on "for better and for worse, in sickness and in health". It is not in my "Christian constitution" to do so.

The difficulty I have with this is that I can understand the frustration of spouses faced with these ordeals. My grandfather had passed away many years prior to my grandmother's diagnosis and death so that circumstance was not an issue. Mr. Petersen's wife, Jan, was diagnosed when she was fifty five years old. I can understand why Mr. Petersen chose his current path knowing as well that he has not forsaken the care of his wife in doing so. I might not agree with it but I understand it. What I cannot understand is how a Christian evangelist can offer such unbiblical advice and opinion. A lot has been written on this immediate controversy and it is an issue of great interest to me but I believe that  the commitment of one to the other regardless of health and illness means considerably more than the category of disease that some might use to qualify such commitments.


Pumice said...

What makes it even harder is talking about sacrifice and bearing the burden when it is not us that is paying the price. Another hard question that will be on the list after the resurrection.

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder if maybe Pat Robertson is in the beginning stages of the disease himself.

No one is an animated corpse. "As the body without the spirit is dead..." As long as the body is alive, the spirit is there. The brain is a tool that just stops working.

What do we mean by pledging "in sickness and in health, till death do us part"? Is the advanced Alzheimer patient dead in God's eyes, so that the spouse is no longer held to the marriage commitment? If so, then what need is there for a divorce? If the spouse is dead, then simply marry someone else. The fact that the civil authorities would have a problem with that shows that neither they nor God nor anyone with common sense would see such a patient as dead.

Ken Hamrick

A.M. Mallett said...

I believe there would be an awful lot of explaining to be made for the saint (if he could be deemed as such)if backs are turned on the union a coupe have in marriage. It would be impossible for me but apparently it is a doable thing for a number of others.

A.M. Mallett said...

By "animated corpse" I am not agreeing the person is dead. I am using the phrase to try to capture what has happened to the person, the mind, the awareness, the recognition of even one's own face and immediate family. It robs one of every cognitive aspect of who they are.

However,as I have noted, I do not see any justification for divorcing or leaving one's spouse under such conditions. It strikes me as totally opposed to our Christian character. As for Robertson, I do not know the state of his mind or health but this seems to be more akin to his inconsistent theological perspective than evidence of Alzheimer's itself.

Jc_Freak: said...

Truly it is a fascinating question. It is one of those interesting little problems that when we try to think of it experientially, we turn one way, and when we try to think of it theologically, we turn another. To put myself in Peterson's shoes, I think of the need that I have of companionship. One of the most difficult things about being the family member of someone who has the disease is that it is almost impossible to properly mourn. The mourning process is all about dealing with the loss, and putting in its appropriate place in life so that one has the perspective to keep living a real life. But you can't do that when you haven't lost someone but are instead losing them, and you can't do anything to stop it.

On the other hand, marriage represents the church and Christ's relationship. Should Christ abandon the church if she looses sight of who she is? Is that the model we want? (though it does sound a bit fundamentalist)\

And then, like you said, there is a vow. No matter how you look at it, death has not parted them yet. There really is no getting around that. If you take the vows seriously, then I don't see how you can justify remarrying until the person passes on.