06 August 2008

'A Joy That Dementia Could Not Crush'

I had two recent posts on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, here and here. My friend Frances Molloy, who founded the Pastoral Care Project, asked me in an email if there was any reference to the spiritual.

Since then I’ve come across a beautiful article on http://www.mercatornet.com/ that does just that, A Joy that Dementia Could Not Crush by Colleen Carroll Campbell of St Louis, Missouri, USA.

The article begins this way:

The frail and elderly have an inherent dignity no disease or disability can erase.

When Ronald Reagan died in 2004 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer's, pundits across America repeated the conventional wisdom about dementia. The former president was only a "shell" and "shadow" of himself in his later years, they said, and his physical passing was a mere formality, the symbolic loss of a man who had vanished long ago.

Those comments always bothered me, but I never fully understood why until two weeks ago, when I lost my father, Thomas Patrick Carroll Sr, to the same disease.

It ends this way:

A few days before he died, I found Dad sitting in his wheelchair, looking unusually alert. His blue eyes brimmed with tears when he spotted me and his arms opened wide. He smiled and said, simply, "Joy!" It was the last word I recall my father speaking to me, a fitting farewell from a man who lived joy with his every breath, to his very last.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is http://www.colleen-campbell.com/ .

This is an article about a man filled with faith, hope and love right to the end, a man who was clearly a gentleman of the old school, with a loving respect for others, especially religious sisters:

Even in his last years, after his condition forced my mother to move him to a nursing home, Dad provoked smiles with courtly bows and tips of an imaginary hat to the elderly nuns who stared at him from their wheelchairs. "Great to see you," he'd say, as he sauntered the halls. "You're the best."

Led into a room full of dementia patients, he would find his way to the corner where the most distressed one among them was muttering incoherently. Plopping down next to her, he would whisper, "We're all in God's hands" and stroke her arm until she grew quiet and calm. "I like to take care of people," he would tell me, when he could remember what he had just done.

What a delightful portrait of a person! I remember the Irish-American father of a friend of mine from the Bronx who spent his final days in a nursing home where most of the people were priests and sisters. The old man thought he was in heaven!

Each of us has a dignity and when we recognise that in those who need our assistance we will find ourselves blessed through them. Thomas Patrick Carroll Sr was clearly a blessing, not only to his own family, but to all who knew him, most especially those who were in the nursing home with him.

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