Alzheimer's and Faith
Calvin prof researches the effects of Alzheimer's on spirituality
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

More than four million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. One in ten persons over the age of 65 and nearly half of those over 85 have Alzheimer’s. Thirty-seven million people in the United States know someone with Alzheimer’s.

Because the disease does not respond to treatment, it presents an ever-increasing threat to the world’s aging population. An estimated 14 million Americans and more than 22 million individuals worldwide will have the disease by the middle of this century if a cure is not found.

These estimates worry mental health professionals; they should also concern Christians, said Glenn Weaver, a Calvin professor of psychology.

“When Christians consider this disorder, which seems so clearly the product of a simple deterioration of the brain, they often tend to think of it primarily as a ‘health’ problem which has little spiritual significance,” wrote Weaver in an article titled “Senile Dementia and a Resurrection Theology,” which appeared in Theology Today (January 1986). “… Such a medical compartmentalization of senile dementia [Alzheimer’s disease] neither fits the understanding of persons presented in the Bible nor the experience that most demented patients know firsthand.”

Weaver first took an interest in the psychological effects of Alzheimer’s in 1986 when his mother was diagnosed with the disease.

He was struck by the lack of information his family was given following her diagnosis. “ … it occurred to me that other than a diagnostic label and a rather grim prognosis, our family had little further insight into the psychological meanings that her condition might hold for her life than we did before,” wrote Weaver in a chapter about his research in the recently released Commitment and Connection (University Press of America, 2003).

As the disease progressed, Weaver also noticed a change in his mother’s spiritual experiences. “The disease affected her sense of who she was, and that had consequences on the quality of her spiritual experience,” he said.

Weaver determined that he might find similar patterns among other Alzheimer’s patients from which he might be able to draw some conclusions and, furthermore, offer support to caregivers and family members.

In 2000, he was able to enlist the help of some Calvin psychology majors in interviewing family members of Alzheimer’s patients. “I was looking for patterns of changes in relationships and in a person’s awareness of who they are,” said Weaver, “and, in turn, changes in their experience of God and faith.”

While the research continues, it has already brought to light some insights about spirituality among those with senile dementia.

“Upsets in memory, agency and perspectivity combined to frustrate patients’ abilities to plan and execute strategies for reading, constructing, listening to or visually following most textually based presentations. This included reading scripture, listening to sermons or following the order of a worship service,” wrote Weaver in the forthcoming book From Cells to Souls (Eerdmans). “ … Persons who relied on these activities as key mediators of God’s grace often found it more difficult than before to find God’s presence when they most needed spiritual assurance and security.”

Even more troubling for those afflicted and their caregivers is the whole aspect of suffering. “I am hoping to look more carefully at the possible redemptive aspects of suffering,” he said. “Suffering is rooted in the brokenness of creation. The brokenness that we suffer is a threat to the quality of our faith, so what redemptive potential can that have? How can God work through that and draw us closer to him?”

The spiritual suffering that can accompany the breakdown of self-identity in Alzheimer’s dementia is immense. “This kind of suffering doesn’t merely reflect the loss of assurances of divine security and comfort as patients face the end of their lives. Much more deeply, spiritual suffering results from a threatened loss of moral, spiritual significance to one’s life in the dissolution of the means through which one knew relationship with God,” wrote Weaver (Cells to Souls).

Through additional research, Weaver hopes to offer a better understanding of loved ones’ conditions. “I think this can enrich our theology by gaining a better understanding of suffering,” he said. “And, in turn, I hope that our understanding might suggest practical ways of sustaining identity and spiritual experience longer into the disease.”

For instance, Weaver found that patients almost never have the opportunity to partake of communion once they stop attending worship services.

“It’s amazing the awakening of memory that taking communion can have,” he said. “It offers an upholding sense of community. It also takes on a new meaning—this is the presence of Christ for you. It makes it real and concrete in a manner that those suffering with Alzheimer’s are capable of experiencing.”

Weaver suggests that the church might consider the importance that sacramental worship has for effective pastoral care. “In fact,” he wrote, “the episodes of greatest spiritual assurance for Alzheimer’s patients seem to arise in regular opportunities to relive very familiar practices that witness to the spiritual meaning of a person’s life. I like to think of these experiences as patients’ participation in the rhythms of God’s grace” (Cells to Souls).

— Lynn Rosendale is Calvin’s publications coordinator.