Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. By John Swinton. Eerdmans (2012).
Book review by Ron Ropp
Who I am changes through life, but who will I be when I have forgotten who I am? God knows who we are, but who are we before God if we have forgotten who God is? Because dementia profoundly affects memory, it raises theological questions such as these, which form the starting place for John Swinton’s reflection in Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, (Eerdmans, 2012).
Swinton reminds readers that as Christians, we are called to be attentive to the presence of God in others. That means being present for others in the deepest sense, which Swinton calls “remembrance in action.” Such presence with those affected by dementia calls for us to change our concept of time. Dementia creates strangers. Love overcomes strangeness. We need to let go of some old ways in which we have loved the person with dementia. We learn to love through our gestures, our presence, our touch and our movement.
Swinton’s book offers a powerful challenge to Christians to bring theological reflection into the definition and treatment of dementia. I highly recommend this book to those with a serious concern for this most critical subject.
Dr. Swinton's experience and understandings of dementia come through work as a psychiatric nurse and mental health chaplain before becoming Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is Founder of The Center For Spirituality, Health and Disability at The University of Aberdeen.
Swinton writes about how theology can enhance the well-being of people with dementia. He describes how theology and medicine have significant differences in how they define health and well-being. Theologically, well-being has nothing to do with the "absence" or "reduction" of anything. Rather, it has to do with "presence" – the presence of peace and the presence of God.
Swinton points out that we should not be doing theological reflection on dementia with a medical, psychological or neurological mindset. Theology offers a different script of what it means to be human. Theology should not begin by looking at dementia through the eyes of psychiatry, which diagnoses dementia by exclusion, rather than by what you have left. Dementia literally means "deprived of mind"--not deprived of "soul" or "humanness."
According to Swinton, psychiatry identifies thinking and memory as critical to what it means to be a person. It has no categories for “love” , “feeling” or “relating”. Theology needs to enter the discussion in defining the difference between "human being" and "human person." Is there a difference between “brain” and “mind”? Western culture sees higher cortical function—thinking—as what is involved in being human. “I think, therefore I am.” Depersonalizing a person with dementia changes relationships from "I—thou" to "I—it."
Swinton sees “humanistic” and “liberal” positions as dehumanizing persons with dementia. He uses a great deal of scriptural proof- texting in support of his theological definitions of what it means to be person. When the world forgets its Creator, we begin to think we are the creators and shape the world to our image. By this we demand that people “have gifts” instead of recognizing that they “are gifts.”
Swinton includes a number of significant stories and reflections of those facing Alzheimer’s, the most severe and challenging of the dementias. These stories give excellent support to the author's views. We are reminded of those with deep dementia who can sing familiar hymns with feeling. He notes that the Spirit intervenes when we can no longer say what we want to say.
But for Christians we are called to be attentive to the presence of God in others. That means being present for others in the deepest sense. He states that presence is "remembrance in action." Presence calls us to change our concept of time. Dementia creates strangers. Love overcomes strangeness. We need to let go of some of the old ways in which we have loved the person with dementia. We learn to love through our gestures, our presence; through our touch and movement. Love, he says, is more than a feeling. It is a way of being in the world.
Swinton’s book offers a complex study of the medical and neurological analysis of dementia and brings a powerful challenge to theologians to participate in the definition and treatment of dementia. I highly recommend this book to those with a serious concern for this most critical subject.
Buy from publisher.
Reviewer Ron Ropp is a Field Associate with ADNet. His interests include helping congregations understand the challenges and welcome the gifts of persons who are aging.