Dementia: Living in the memories of God
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code
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.