Dementia and Sacramental Remembering

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I hear so many tender stories of people caring for a loved one who struggles with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

A parent or grandparent.

A spouse.

A sibling.

A child.

A friend.

Every story is unique, but there are always common threads of sadness and sensitivity, heartbreak and hope.

Such stories remind me of my journey with my own father. Back in 2002, when Dad’s dementia was officially diagnosed, I remember sitting at the piano in our living room—a place I often go when I am confronted with realities that are difficult for me to process. I started playing seemingly random chords. A melody began to form. Then a phrase. “I’ll remember for you when you forget.”

That phrase became a chorus.

That chorus became a song.

That song became my truthful story, even a personal mission statement, in my relationship with Dad until his death in 2011:

I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you
When you forget

What does one do when a loved one is still here, but different; still with us, but in a way that demands a different kind of communication and attentiveness? What does one do in the gradual grief of surrendering a precious soul to the ravages of dementia?

In a word, one REMEMBERS.

We honor the ones who struggle, not only by blessing them with our attentive and sacrificial caregiving, but also by engaging in the beautiful work of remembering the parts of their story that they might be inclined to forget. We recall significant moments and memories. We recollect the journey and its revelations. We retell the sacred narrative of which his or her life is still a vital part. We remember.

When one experiences forgetfulness in dementia, remembering becomes a sacramental act, the bread and cup of which can be shared frequently and with deep reverence.

In this regard, caring for someone with dementia reminds me of what we call “church.” What is “church,” after all, but a community of chronically forgetful people helping one another to remember what they are most inclined to abandon in their spiritual dementia? What is “church” but a gathering of needy and distorted souls inspiring one another to recall what it means to live by the often countercultural Story of Jesus?

The church is a place of sacramental remembering, which means that the relationship between an attentive caregiver and a person with dementia is perhaps closer to the heart of “church” than either person realizes. In both settings, the rhythms of remembering are as natural as breathing and every bit as urgent.

I recorded the song I wrote for my dad and shared it with him while he was still able to make sense of it.

We wept together.

We prayed with desperate urgency.

We remembered.

Here is the song and its lyrics. May it fall gently upon your heart. And may it help you to remember.

When You Forget (words and music by Eric Park)

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

The memory is just one portion of the person one becomes
And when it fails it doesn’t mean that one’s a failure
I’ll hold your memories as though they were a sacramental bread
And we will break that bread with reverence and frequency

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

I see you in the back yard teaching both your sons how to throw a ball
I see you in the living room reading to your daughter
Your 50thanniversary looking at your wife like you did fifty years ago
I see you in a preacher’s robe teaching about the things of God

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

With the pure water of your outpoured life
You have filled five hundred thousand cups
We have drawn from the wellspring of your decency
You’re who we want to be when we grow up

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

One thought on “Dementia and Sacramental Remembering

  1. Dear Eric, your words as always are so well written and thoughtful. As you know, I help care for my 88yr old mom with dementia and treasure all my time with her. She’s different now, but yet the same classy lady who retains her sense of humor and grace. She’s known as Sweetie Pie to almost everyone and has been an absolutely wonderful mother.
    I’ve listened to this song so many times over the past few years and it always brings me to tears as I remember the mother/daughter times we had. How she used to curl up with me when I took a nap, read to me, made me something else for dinner if I didn’t like what she was cooking for dinner! How she mixed the cream rinse with warm water for my hair so it wouldn’t be cold! And then when I broke my arm at 3yrs old jumping over the rope around her little garden, the one she told me not to, how she just held me and rocked me til my dad got home with the car to take me to the hospital. She slept in a lawn chair overnight beside my bed and fainted when they took my blood, but never a word about how I wasn’t supposed to jump over that rope. As I got older, the fun times shopping, planning my wedding, visiting Christmas open houses, and the special treats that only she could bake just right!
    Those are the memories I need to remember now. So many special ones. She can’t follow a recipe so my sister and I need to bake. My sister keeps her looking like a classy lady and we get her hair done every week. We talk about the memories and tell her how wonderful she was and still is.
    She’s beautiful at this stage she is in. I love her so very much and thankfully she can still express that feeling. I cry for the mother I miss. I thank God for the mother I have and the time I have with her. Yes, we have our struggles about things she doesn’t want to do, but we try to laugh! I thank her for being the best mother ever and for spoiling me absolutely rotten!! I’m thankful for her legacy and teaching me to be the wife, mother and gramma that I am. For loving me unconditionally. I’m thankful that on good days we can still talk and have a conversation and on not so good days I hope that just knowing I’m in the same room and there for her makes a difference. And then she will surprise me when I arrive in Florida after not seeing her for a couple months with the biggest kiss and hug, “I’m so glad you are here” and when I go to bed, my covers are all turned down and waiting for me to crawl in! I feel bad when I am states away. Also thankfully she can still talk on the phone and loves FaceTime!
    So thank you Eric, for your words put together perfectly and the beautiful song sung by you and Tara.
    My mom is a special lady and I will remember for her when she forgets. She is my hero.
    Much love, Cherie

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