The perils and challenges of getting older:
I am obviously getting older, and the younger my readers are, the less they may know what in the world I am talking about. First, apologies for the slight revision of the first line in the classic 1967 Beatles’ song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It of course was originally this:
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
Of course I am also losing my hair, and I lamented that reality when I turned 64: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/01/27/im-sixty-four/
Hopefully I am not yet losing my mind, but with age comes that real possibility. Things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are very real concerns for millions of people. While such things have not yet touched my life (as far as I can tell), there have been four recent things that have coalesced to make me think about all this – and write about it.
The first you already know about. I penned several pieces recently on the great missionary and Christian statesman, Elisabeth Elliot. As I said in those pieces, most Christians know about her early life with her husband Jim, and his martyrdom in the jungles of South America decades ago.
But many do not know much about her final years, including her own struggles with dementia and Alzheimer’s. When someone known for having such a great mind, such great thinking, writing and speaking skills, succumbs to these things, it is shocking to behold. See one of my pieces here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/09/21/three-top-books-on-elisabeth-elliot/
Two other things came in the form of what was found on television. The first is a 30-second TV commercial on the matter of dementia which I had seen two or three times of late. It is put out by Dementia Support Australia and is quite moving. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAljZ7dcS6U
The version I saw however has the closing words of the woman to her husband as “I want to go home” or something like that. If it is so very hard on the person going through it, it is also so very hard on the loved ones and family members who seek to care for such people.
The second TV item was a movie on the topic just aired. At best I only saw 12 or so minutes of it, including the concluding minutes. But it seems to be a very good and very powerful film on this topic. The 2020 film The Father stars Anthony Hopkins.
The 85-year-old Welsh actor once portrayed C. S. Lewis in a film, and he recently said no to both his atheism and alcoholism. He received high marks for his performance in this film. The movie itself received an overall rating of 98 per cent. That is very good indeed.
Obviously I will have to try to view the entire film at some point soon. But not having been aware of it until last night, I looked it up. The Focus on the Family filmsite PluggedIn has a review of the movie. Its closing paragraphs are worth sharing here:
The Father, of course, is a very sad movie, one that mercilessly marches through the realities of fading by inches. For those who are intimately acquainted with the subtle horrors of Alzheimer’s and dementia, the film might be especially hard.
But it might be welcome, too, for the film comes with its own bleak beauty It carries with it, perhaps, the tang of grief—all the sorrow and sadness and anguish and pain that great loss brings, but moments of strange sunlight in the darkness: Because in the midst of grief, love remains. Love goes on.
I am not myself, Anthony tells us in gesture and deed. But as the movie wears on, an important but comes about. I am not myself, it says, but I am worthy of love still. I care still—and need care. I am not myself, but I am still a beautiful thing—a beloved creation.
The Father features two incredible performances by previous Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. And while it has some bursts of foul language and moments of shocking cruelty, the story is at its core a tender one, albeit sad and painful.
“I feel like I’m losing all my leaves,” Anthony confesses, “the branches in the wind in the rain.”
Even then—in his confusion and pain and helplessness, some truths still remain: The sun sometimes shines. Walks in the garden can still be pleasant. And he’s still cared for. He’s still loved. In his raging, growing darkness, there is still light. https://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/father-2021/
A fourth item that gives rise to this piece I will have to reserve discussion on for a future article. But a very sad and sobering thing happened to my wife in this regard, with cancerous lesions and tumours found in so many parts of her body, including her brain.
Dealing with dementia
I am not a counsellor nor a doctor, and can offer little practical help for those struggling in these areas. But there are so many books out now on the issues of dementia, Alzheimer’s and the like. And there are many Christian volumes on these topics as well. Here I will mention just one book which is very good indeed. I refer to Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop (Crossway, 2017).
Dunlop has spend decades as a geriatrician dealing with these matters, and his own parents suffered from dementia. In the book he offers a medical, scientific, practical and biblical approach to the issue. While there is plenty of medical material covered in this book, the spiritual/biblical aspects that go along with it are certainly quite helpful and essential as well. With that in mind, I offer two quotes from the volume:
I hate dementia. When I saw it developing in both of my parents, it was hard to see these beautiful, loving people incapacitated by the changes in their minds, even though their dementias were not the worst cases I have known—not by far. But even while I lament this tragedy, I am still totally convinced that God is both good and strong and that dementia was in his plan for them. One of my favorite psalms puts it like this: “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love” (Ps. 62:11–12). p. 21
One of the striking things the Bible teaches us about God is how he takes some of the most difficult circumstances of life and transforms them for his own purposes. We see that dramatically in the case of sin itself. God’s glory is certainly seen in the marvels of his beautiful creation. But we see even more of his glory in the way he dealt with sin. In spite of our turning our backs on God, he loved us to the extent that he sent his Son to suffer and die to bring us back into relationship with him. Similarly, God takes many of the most difficult challenges of life and turns them around, enabling us to appreciate how great he is. His purpose may not be our immediate comfort but our long-term ability to find our greatest joy in him. Joni Eareckson Tada, who is quadriplegic, is well known for saying of God, “Always permitting what he hates to accomplish something he loves.” Pastor Tim Keller explains it clearly: “The evils of life can be justified if we recognize that the world was primarily created to be a place where people find God and grow spiritually into all they were designed to be.” One of those things that God may hate, one of those evils of life, is dementia. Yet, as we will see, God can use dementia to allow us to know more of his goodness and to honor him. pp. 25-26
Many Christians of course struggle with things like dementia, or they have loved ones who do. One such person is Christian apologist Douglas Groothuis. Around 2012 his beloved wife Becky was struck down with a form of dementia. She passed away in 2018. In 2017 Doug released a book dealing with this huge battle to look after his wife and witness her decline. I wrote a review of it at the time. You can see it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/12/06/review-walking-twilight-doug-groothuis/
Let me share just one important line from the book: “I am hanging by a thread, but the thread is knit by God.” I have quoted this often. Doug made it through all this, by God’s grace, and is now remarried and continues his vital ministry. As I get older – attending far more funerals than weddings – I will certainly have more friends and loved ones who head down this path.
So I may pen more pieces like this in the days ahead. And as I say, I will soon enough write about my wife’s close encounter with the scary world of memory loss and brain failure.