As a pastor, I make calls on members in various kinds of care home facilities because these people are cut off from their church community. It is important for the church community to continue to minister to these people, including those who will not remember our efforts. These include Alzheimer’s patients.
Alzheimer’s patients have a terrible debilitating disease of the mind. It is first noticeable when a person begins to forget familiar words, the location of familiar objects, or names. In the final stages these people lose the ability to respond to their environment and to the people they love. They become unable to perform the daily tasks of caring for themselves.
I admit, sometimes I have asked myself why I visit Alzheimer’s patients. Why the time on the road driving to a care facility and ten or fifteen minutes visiting someone who will not remember that I came? Will I have helped the person in any way by my visit if she doesn’t have the ability to reflect on our conversation and process it?
The immediate joy of human contact and interaction is enough reason for me to go see them. In addition, these people are of value to me. They are people who have been of great value to our church, our community, and their family and their friends are people that I love and care about. While they may not remember my visit, I will remember it. On many, many, occasions, they have blessed me.
Also, as I visit them, I also try to minister to their caretaker. These are special people. It takes a special person to work with people who are reverting back to a childlike status and will eventually die in their care. It can be a very depressing job, but they will tell you it is also very rewarding. These are wonderful people who are performing very important jobs in our society and they are rarely recognized and thanked.
I am often intrigued by those things that an Alzheimer’s patient does that are rare glimpses of the old self, something that seems to be etched on the brain a little deeper than some of the other things that have already been deleted.
Despite many visits, Mrs. Betty Wilbanks doesn’t know that I am her pastor. She doesn’t know what a pastor is or does. She doesn’t know what church she has been a member of for most of her life. She doesn’t know what city she lives in or the names of people around her. But she hasn’t forgotten how to be gracious.
Even with the progressing nature of Alzheimer’s, she still has a thankful heart, and although she doesn’t know me, she still thanks me most of the times that I visit her. When the words, “Thank for coming,” come out, I am shocked because they might be the only words the entire time I am with her that made any sense. She teaches me something about gratitude every time I see her, even if it’s just her smile and sparkle in her eyes.
Mrs. Mary Penn recently died recently at age 92, moving through all the stages of Alzheimer’s before she died. Mary worked for 30 years in Washington, D.C. for three different Congressmen from the 7th District of Georgia.
Once when I was visiting Mary, she asked me if I had a card. While I usually carry cards with me, I didn’t have one on me that day. In asking this question, Mary had reached back to her days in Washington when she always asked for a business card from those who dropped in to call on her boss. Each time she asked me for a card from that point on, I had one.
If Jesus were handing out cards to these patients and to their families, and caretakers, I believe his words would be very simple. “Trust in God, trust also in me”—Jesus. “Peace be with you”—Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life”—Jesus.
In a day when churches are mostly concerned about the number of people in Sunday school, or small groups, the amount of offering collected on Sunday, or the total of people that were in worship, one of the most important numbers are how many people we have in care homes and how often we visit them.
I believe Jesus will bless us if we do not forget those who were once as we are, and where many of us will one day be, but now must be where their needs can be best cared for by others. While their major work is done, they still have things to teach us, but only if we visit them.