Kenneth L. Carder
Abingdon Press, 192 pages
Reviewed by Linda Dickerson
I’ve been a pastor for 32 years, and during that time, I have ministered to those suffering from dementia and their families. I believe I ministered to them with compassion and respect, but my eyes were opened when I read Kenneth Carder’s book. The book recounts Carder’s and his wife’s journey through her frontotemporal dementia. What is most intriguing about his story is how he helps the reader to make the move from seeing dementia through a medical lens to seeing persons with dementia through a spiritual lens — or at least through a ministry lens. What does it mean when a person has lost memory of religious rituals, scriptural stories and even God? In what sense are they still children of God? Carder insists that a radical new understanding of dementia means seeing how dementia “impacts the meaning of personhood, wholeness, salvation, sin, and love.”
We Presbyterians, particularly, put a high value on the cerebral — often locating theology to the brain. We want people to know and understand what we do in worship, in sacraments and in life. So it is challenging to imagine how a person can be a disciple of Jesus Christ when they don’t remember Jesus. Carder insists that church people need to let go of the idea that God resides in the intellect, and move beyond that to see ourselves as nephesh — bodies enspirited with the breath of God. This is a more holistic way of seeing God’s children.
Carder suggests that the metaphor of exile is a more helpful way of seeing a person’s journey into dementia. Dementia leads people into a strange and unknown world, far from all that is cherished and known. But he writes that though they may have forgotten God, God has not forgotten them; and in that affirmation lies their identity, their worth and their hope.
This book is especially valuable for pastors, deacons, ruling elders and, indeed, all those who are part of a community of faith. It offers a new way of seeing and relating to people whose cognition is becoming scrambled and gradually erased. We are invited to begin to see those with dementia in a more holistic, incarnational way. Further, we are invited to participate with them and to experience the divine presence in and through them.
Carder suggests the following as ways to participate with them:
- Physical presence that declares the worth and dignity of those persons,
- Attentiveness to different ways of communicating,
- Consider the mystery of the incarnation that leads us to “reverence and awe.”
Carder reminds readers that the tragedy of dementia is not that people forget, but that they are forgotten — by families, friends and religious communities. God, however, does not forget those beloved ones.
This book would make an excellent study for almost any group in the church. It is challenging, but so worthwhile. If we can learn to receive from rather than minister to those with dementia, it will be a great gift.
One bonus is that Carder has created a video series to use for study, which is available free at tnumc.org/dementiaresources.
Linda Dickerson is pastor of Northside Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia.