Dad, Descartes, and Dementia

Faith extends far beyond what we can comprehend or articulate.

Dad has dementia. The disease gnawing away at his brain has been eating away at his independence as well, so that he is no longer able to drive, dress, or bathe himself without assistance. He understands little and recalls less of what is said to him. He is challenged by such tasks as taking a pill, choosing the right piece of silverware, or finding his way to his recliner. When speaking, he often stops mid-sentence, unable to locate words and string them together to express his thought.

So is he even the same man as the one who raised me? I started to think of his life as being over. I wondered why God hasn’t taken him. I even wondered about his faith. Is he still capable of believing in God? How can he think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable (Phil. 4:8) if he can hardly think at all?

A lecture given by James Houston, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, helped me deal with these questions. Houston claims that modern ideas about personhood were shaped by René Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who based human knowledge on the proposition “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, what is most central to humanity is not that we feel or act or will, but that we think. Following Descartes, most moderns view themselves primarily as objective, disinterested thinkers. If personhood consists of thinking, though, where does that leave someone like my dad?

Perhaps I had been unfairly using reasoning ability as a yardstick for measuring Dad. When I started to pay attention to other aspects of the person he still is, I discovered that he lives more fully than I had imagined. He always liked to laugh and still has a sense of humor. Recently, when a doctor grasped his arm and carefully walked him up and down the hall to check his gait, my dad wryly commented, “That was fun,” as if they had just danced. He continues to have a rich emotional life, experiencing sadness over others’ misfortunes, enthusiasm over a good meal, anxiety about being alone, delight at my dog’s antics, and regret when he exasperates my mother. 

I’ve also noticed that dad is fully relational. He enjoys being with my mother and still tells her regularly that he loves her. He frequently asks her to “sit and talk.” She sometimes objects, “I was just there and you didn’t say anything.” For him, though, sitting and talking means communion, whether words are spoken or not. He also relates to me. When I help him do stretching exercises, he will reach forward much farther if I sit across from him and he is reaching not into empty space but toward my outstretched hands. He regularly thanks me for assisting him.

Laughter, empathy, anxiety, joy, yearning for relationship, and gratitude: despite limitations of thought and memory, Dad is still richly human. Descartes tried to reduce us to thought alone, but we are so much more. As for Dad’s faith, I’ve decided that someone who long ago placed himself in the loving arms of Jesus remains in those arms even after he has forgotten where he is. I think of the words the psalmist penned when under enemy attack: “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him” (Ps. 62:1).

Isn’t God still my dad’s rest and salvation, even though his adversary doesn’t swing a sword but culls his brain cells instead? For Dad—for all of us—faith extends far beyond what we can comprehend or articulate.

Related material

Music and Memory (The Banner)

Psalm 23 Alzheimer’s Version

About the Author

Robert J. Ritzema, a clinical psychologist, practices part-time as a therapist at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids, Mich. He worships at Square Inch Church, a Christian Reformed church plant in Grand Rapids.

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Comments

Very nice.  Very true.  Very well said.  

Outstanding, very helpful to those in similar situations.

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