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Not to be forgotten

21 June 2013

Penny Seabrook on a compassionate study

Dementia: Living in the memories of God
John Swinton
SCM Press £25
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IN A moving interview (Features, 8 March), John Swinton voiced some of the difficult existential questions that are prompted by the experience of dementia, and gave a narrative account of how these might be an- swered theologically. His book Dementia: Living in the memories of God describes the intellectual journey that led to the answers, and demonstrates a deep compassion for those who can no longer remember in the way they once did.

There is no shortage of personal story in Swinton's writing, but the book is primarily academic, and impressive, because he starts in a different place from others. While medics focus on symptoms of defective neurology, and philosophers talk in terms of what might be owed to sufferers by virtue of their personhood, Swinton sees dementia as a condition that usefully teaches us who we are, in relation to God. In other words, he casts it in the light of a theological anthropology that recognises that we are all dependent and contingent, relational, embodied, broken, and deeply lost beings, but loved by God no less for that.

The theology of care that he develops around this anthropology takes its cue from each descriptor, and hence can also be applied to other conditions where there is cognitive impairment, or a frag-mented subjective sense of self. Since God does not love for instrumental reasons, we who are made in his image should love likewise: not measuring out care in terms of reward, but cherishing each and every human being on his or her own terms.

This demands huge reserves of patience, and a deep respect for those who are afflicted by dementia; so it is not care that is easily delivered without support from the wider community - be that church, or family, or the caring professions. So, when you next decide that there is no point in visiting, because the person with dementia will not remember you, think again.

It does not matter if dementia-sufferers forget, but it does matter if they are forgotten. God holds them in his memory, and we can communicate that by being there for them, holding them, moment by moment, in loving solidarity, so that the experience of being alive remains meaningful, and at its best joyful.

The Revd Penny Seabrook is Associate Vicar of All Saints', Fulham, in London.

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