An elderly woman suffering from dementia paced the corridors of the nursing home restlessly, repeating over and over just one word. Staff persons were disconcerted, but no one seemed quite sure how to calm her and put her mind at rest. They were at a loss to understand the reason for her distress. The word she repeated over and over was "God." That was all she said. One day, a nurse walked alongside her, up and down the corridors until eventually, in a flash of inspiration, she asked the woman, "Are you afraid that you will forget God?"
"Yes, yes!" the woman replied emphatically. The nurse said to her, "You know, even if you should forget God, He will not forget you. He has promised that." For this woman, who was aware that she was forgetting many things, the nurse's words of assurance were what she needed to hear. She immediately became more peaceful, and her pacing ceased. She responded positively to care, which extended beyond the needs of her body and mind to the care of the human spirit.
We can learn many things from this story, but one of the most important is that God does not abandon us in our time of dementia. What is faith? We might think that faith relates to knowing things about God. We need to learn facts, names, ideas, concepts, and values that we associate with God. When we can remember these things, we know things about God, and we have faith. But what happens when we forget the things that we know about God? Do we lose our faith? The answer is no, we do not!
Knowing things about God is, of course, helpful. But the apostle James points out: "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19 NIV). Knowing things about God is not enough. Having faith requires getting to know God and above all else, always trusting God in all things. God is love. Love is not an idea or an intellectual notion. Love is not something we do with our minds alone; it is a relationship. God loves us. Our relationship with God is not dependent on our remembering things about God. When we forget, God continues to remember. As the psalmist puts it: "He remembered us in our weakness. His faithful love endures forever" (Psalm 136:23 NLT). When we forget, the God who is love and relationship remembers us. Why? Because "nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39 NLT).
You might say, "Nice idea, but what does that look like?" Well, I suggest it looks like you! Toward the beginning of Michael Verde's powerful film, Love is Listening: Dementia Without Loneliness (2019), an African American woman with advanced dementia reflects on her life experience: "I don't know where I am. I don't know where I'm going. I don't know where I've just come from. But I'm not fearful." She pauses and looks deeply into the eyes of her friend. "Because I see all around me—I don't see a lot—but I see patience." She looks upward and away, her eyes glaze over a little. "I see gratitude. I see tolerance." She slowly looks back toward her friend and smiles. "I think I see love." She smiles. "And your face is a picture of love."
It's a very beautiful and moving scene. Even when we feel lost, uncertain about the future, and unable to work out where life is going, we can still feel and experience love. More than that, the presence of such love can drive out fear. The experience of dementia, at times, can be quite frightening. We need people who will love us out of our fear and help us experience God's love amid the challenges. When experiencing dementia, as in all times, we need people who will act gently, patiently, kindly, humbly, and respectfully. We need people whose lives are filled with love (1 Corinthians 13). We need to be reminded of the presence of the God who is love. We need people like you. Is your face a picture of love?
 Margaret G. Hutchison, "Unity and Diversity in Spiritual Care." Paper originally presented at the Sydney University Nursing Society First Annual Conference for Undergraduate Nursing Students in New South Wales, Australia, September 1997.
John Swinton is a professor in practical theology and pastoral care and chair in divinity and religious studies at the University of Aberdeen. For more than a decade, he worked as a registered mental health nurse. He also worked for several years as a hospital and community mental health chaplain alongside people with severe mental health challenges who were moving from the hospital into the community. In 2004, he founded the University of Aberdeen's Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability. He has published widely in the areas of mental health, dementia, disability theology, spirituality and healthcare, qualitative research, and pastoral care. He is the author of several monographs, including "Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship" (Baylor Press, 2017). His book Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of People with Mental Health Challenges (Eerdmans 2020) won the 2022 Aldersgate book prize. His book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Eerdmans 2012) was awarded the Archbishop of Canterbury's Ramsey Prize for theological excellence.