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Dementia strikes my younger brother

As I was getting into my devotions at about 4:30 a.m. January 5, my phone pinged with a text from my elder daughter, Olivia, in England. She was letting me know that my younger brother, after failing several assessments, had finally been accepted into the dementia unit of an outstanding care facility near his home. Phone calls, more texts, and emails followed through the day as we arranged his transfer from the hospital, a contract, funds, insurance, and such things.

It was an early morning call around Thanksgiving that had let me know that my brother’s healthcare crisis had come to a head. Chris is 70 and single. He had fallen during the night, and been down for eight hours before being found and rushed to a hospital. As soon as I could I arrange a flight across the Atlantic, and at the hospital I found a man with galloping dementia, a mere shell of the one I had seen only a couple of months earlier. Chris had been a successful businessman, but the doctors were adamant he could never live at home again, drive, or even manage his own affairs. Diabetes and dementia are only part of the long list of his ailments.

During the next ten days my routine was to visit the hospital while scouring the countryside for a place where he would be safe, secure, cared for, and comfortable. My cousin, a registered nurse with a lot of eldercare experience, advised and prodded. I was naïve enough to think I might be able to have everything fixed up before I returned to the United States. Given the convoluted nature of my brother’s physical and mental health, many establishments had misgivings about taking him on, so my daughter, an overburdened university administrator, picked up the trail when I came home.

The word that comes to mind to describe these last weeks is harrowing. We are now in the front line of the dementia and Alzheimer’s epidemic that is ravaging our culture. I am suddenly my brother’s keeper as next of kin. This would be a fraught undertaking if we lived in the same town, but is further complicated by an ocean and six time zones between us. There have been anxious days, frantic prayers, and sleepless nights, the stress having a character all of its own. I am writing not just to emphasize the significance of this mental-health challenge, but also to clarify my thoughts and to distill from them some wisdom.

My brother and I have never been close, our paths further diverging in the wake of my teenage commitment to Christ. Dismissing faith as a refuge for the inadequate, he headed in the opposite direction. There were times when in my early zeal I became prissy and hypocritical, a self-righteous older brother to his prodigal son, the religious oddball in our largely post-Christian family. I was ordained and Chris went into construction, taking full advantage of fortuitous opportunities and retiring at 60 with investments that would support an affluent life. We kept in touch, but phone calls were occasional. We cared about each other, but there was little intimacy.

When in England for a family wedding in August 2016, we were made aware of his massive physical and psychological deterioration. I began keeping closer touch and we even vacationed together, but by September 2017 he could barely totter from bed to recliner, his life complicated by other infirmities. During my 10 days with him, it was obvious that he was no longer mentally coping, yet he refused to let go of that with which he was familiar. I spent the time there trying to bring some order to the chaotic state of his business and financial affairs. A bigger crisis was barreling toward us, and that was the November surprise.

I am no stranger to dementia; my brother has followed a path similar to that taken by our mother and grandmother. I find myself wondering if I will be affected next. That’s selfish, I know, but unsurprising. Meanwhile, news comes of friends with ever-worsening ailments, watching the hollowing out of their loved ones, or leaving this planet. Although I have lived among families going through something similar since my ordination in 1969, my brother’s ordeal has brought home to me how stressful this is on even the most stable family systems.

In quiet moments, I field regrets about Chris, wishing I had reached out more strenuously earlier, but now as his mind muddies the nature of our relationship has to change. I find myself mulling over the detritus from long-past conflicts that still sits there despite a half-century of prayers and resolutions. No doubt more hurt, remorse, grief, and qualms will burrow their way to the surface of my consciousness in due course. There is guilt and there have been tears.

My sense of mortality is now front and center. However, there is a perception that my brother’s decline might be God’s gift as I position myself for the last days of my life. The main chapters of the book of my life are, for better or worse, now written, while what lies ahead could be little more than a brief epilogue. Ever conscious of the depths of my fallenness, I am sure of my Savior. In the words of Augustus Toplady’s great hymn, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.”

Reason tells me that there is little more I could have done for Chris, yet remorse lingers. Did I sidestep responsibilities earlier in life; am I now warehousing my brother because it is the easiest way out of an almost impossible dilemma? Such questions cascade through my mind, and I have few appropriate answers. As I put the finishing touches to this little piece, I heard that Chris is not sure where he is but is angry about not being allowed to go home, something that is impossible under British law.

In the middle of last night, I awoke wondering about his inner confusion during the hours of darkness in a strange place, his capacities being whittled away. The words of Shakespeare in As You Like It refused to go away when the playwright talked of the ages of a man culminating in “second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

What a huge challenge dementia is for all human beings, but especially for those of us entrusted by Christ with his mission in a broken and hurting world.


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