Life’s final season
Portrait of a saint. © TheFaceOfGraceProject.com–no use permitted
“If there be a true way that leads to the Everlasting Kingdom,
it is most certainly that of suffering, patiently endured.” (St. Colette)
There is an old saying that the only things in life of which we can be certain are death and taxes. Perhaps we should add to that aging.
Our human biology wears out both bodily and mentally over time, but more rapidly in the last decades of life; the final ‘season’. That season may be a few years or a few decades. Some people are graced with a mere slowing down of thinking and moving; perhaps just a slight increase in forgetfulness. Perhaps more common is for dementia to set in, a seemingly downward spiral as the loss in short term memory, cognition, and other abilities perpetuate.
Typically, the aging person recognizes this about themselves. At first, they can adapt with strengths and habits, and it won’t be noticeable to others. However, it is noticeable to them. The worry, fear, and embarrassment can and often does lead to depression.
Eventually, it does become noticeable to others. Unfortunately, the reaction of family and even friends is often first to be critical of them. “Don’t you remember…? Why didn’t you…? What are you doing that for? You just said that!” Even the best of relationships become antagonistic.
At the same time that this aging process ensues, it causes a change in lifestyle. This can cause resentment in both the one suffering dementia and their family caregiver as they blame one another for not being able to engage in the same activities and lifestyle as they had in the past.
“If we wish to keep peace with our neighbor, we should never remind anyone of his natural defects.” (St. Philip Neri)
As the dementia sets in, their behavior can become combative. In a married couple, decades of trust suddenly dissipate into the lodging of accusations fueled by nonsensible paranoia, insults, arguing and more. False accusations that ‘you are stealing from me’ or ‘you are trying to poison me!’ come from the dementia sufferer. There is the unspoken threat of their possibly saying this to an authority who would believe them. The spouse or adult child caregiver may fire back at them, and animosity ratchets up a notch with every round. The tension becomes seemingly permanent as the dynamic of the relationship has devolved into a battle zone.
“Bear the cross and do not make the cross bear you.” (St. Philip Neri)
Satan will play with their minds, painting a bleak picture of the universal negative, his hallmark: “this will never change; it will always be this way; there is no answer to this.” Being blindsided by their dementia behavior, the spouse or adult child finds themselves being sucked into an antagonistic dynamic that seems to have no exit. The result can be drowning in self-pity, bitterness and resentment.
What I’ve described occurs with common dementia in an otherwise mentally stable person. However, add to the mix factors such as PTSD from military service or life trauma, mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, and certain personality disorders, and the previously likeable person becomes extremely abusive and possibly even a physical threat.
For the caregiver spouse or adult child, the outcome is the same effect as emotional abuse. The person in their heart does not intend to be abusive, but without capacity to regulate their behavior, it is abusive nonetheless. Typically, family caregivers are too caught up in the dynamic to realize they are building up a storehouse of wounds.
“Little children follow and obey their father. They love their mother. They know nothing of covetousness, ill-will, bad temper, arrogance and lying. This state of mind opens the road to heaven. To imitate our Lord’s own humility, we must return to the simplicity of God’s little ones. “(St Hilary of Poiters)
Additionally, the abusive behavior can trigger old wounds in the family caregiver. For the spouse, childhood wounds may have been suppressed their entire adult life, and now 60 years later they are thrust into this trauma that brings the old to the surface.
“If you truly want to help the soul of your neighbor, you should approach God first with all your heart. Ask him simply to fill you with charity, the greatest of all virtues; with it you can accomplish what you desire.” (St. Vincent Ferrer)
It is important to reach out to caregivers to aid them in many ways. The first step is a paradigm shift of changing expectations. The seeds that sprout into antagonism come from the expectations that the aged person will still have their same strengths and sensibilities. Even after being diagnosed with dementia, it is common for the family to not change their expectations of him.
“The tears of the penitents are wine for the angels.” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)
This is difficult to do because it requires accepting change. The aged person’s changing future means ‘my’ future changes too. That brings uncertainty to the spouse. “Who will take care of me? What will happen to me/us financially? Where will I/we live?” A formerly-predictable life is turned upside down and only one certainty is left: that the future is uncertain.
“Let us run to Mary, and, as her little children, cast ourselves into her arms with a perfect confidence.” (St. Francis de Sales)
Perhaps the most important way we can help caregivers is to give them a ‘safe space’ in which to voice all fears. Emptying the heart of fear shines a light on its source and the enemy runs away (Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, #326). It brings opportunity to talk about underlying wounds from which the fear emerges. Perhaps it is fear of poverty, of abandonment, loneliness, chastisement. Childhood abuse leaves hidden scars in the heart named ‘unlovable’ and ‘unworthy’. The current dementia-fueled abuse rubs salt into those wounds and the self-talk can no longer be ignored nor silenced. So, the caregiver reacts to this, adding fuel to the fire of the current situation.
“Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them — every day begin the task anew.” (St. Francis de Sales)
For the dynamic of a relationship to change, a person must change themselves. Too often we focus on changing the other instead. We must first accept God’s mercy, believing that it truly is more powerful than our woundedness. Only then can we bring His mercy to others.
“In confession there is mercy. Believe it firmly, do not doubt, do not hesitate, never despair of the mercy of God.” (St. Isadore of Seville)
No better means exists to healing and changing that relational dynamic than the Catholic sacraments. As St. Elizabeth Ann Seton said “The heart preparing to receive the Holy Eucharist should be like a crystal vase.” We continue to pray for our worldwide church, especially Pope Francis, the clergy and religious who bring God to us in the sacraments and bring us to God in their prayer. Let us particularly beg God for His intercession into the hearts and lives of all our elders, particularly those distressed under the pandemic conditions.
Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. Amen. (Chaplet of Divine Mercy)
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. 😊