Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia: A Book Review

by | Aug 31, 2017 | Josh Sommer

Crossway was gracious enough to send Josh a review copy of ‘Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia’. We appreciate their willingness to send us quality content for review. 

I was about 10 years old when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He and my grandmother lived on a hill that overlooked a lake about two hours away from my hometown. They were relatively far from family, my great uncle and aunt being the only near relatives. My grandparents needed one another in such an isolated situation, but my grandpa didn’t have my grandma through his lung cancer. It was as if he lived alone at times, or perhaps even with a stranger.

My grandma was diagnosed with alzheimer’s disease years before my grandfather discovered his cancer. She would often wander, string together incomplete sentences, and stare into the distance as if all life had gone out of her. Alzheimer’s, being a form of dementia, is a devastating disease and makes victims out of not only the patient, but of the patient’s family members as well. Everything changes when the symptoms of dementia become apparent. Those with advanced dementia require frequent, if not constant, supervision. My grandma once casually walked away from family, acquired the keys to my aunt’s car, and went on a cruise! By the grace of God she was found unharmed, and brought back home.

A Practical Necessity

The people of the church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, suffer from dementia often, whether they be family members dealing with a loved one or they themselves. Diseases like dementia affect everyone involved. Dr. John Dunlop, a medical doctor, has gifted God’s people with a volume specifically aimed at applying a Christian worldview to the unfortunate situation of dementia. Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia is a book authored by a Christian who is a medical expert. This volume is pastoral, sensitive to the subject, and factually relevant.

The church has produced innumerable devotional resources, rightly so. The church’s library of pastoral helps alone could fill Oxford’s library. However, not many resources targeting one specific situation, such as dementia, have been authored. I, for one, would love to see more members of Christ’s church write resources like this, according to their own lines of work and professional expertise. Dr. Dunlop is a physician who specifically work in geriatrics and is thus equipped to write about a common disease among the senior demographic.

Dunlop’s professional experience makes his input on the subject valuable, especially for those in the church. But he has also experienced dementia first hand, in his mother. Not only is this a disease Dunlop deals with professionally, it’s a disease which, to him, is close to home. His mother suffered from dementia. Like myself, this disease has affected him.

Dementia in the Context of Creation

Dunlop does a great job of starting with a biblical worldview. He puts into perspective creation, and how creation was supposed to look. He writes:

Seven times in Genesis 1 we are told that the world God made was good, meaning it conformed perfectly to God’s character. It was filled with love, beauty, joy, righteousness, and satisfying work for our first parents. There was no human death, no disease, no pain or suffering. Most important, for our present purposes, there was no dementia (p. 23).

Dunlop is exactly right. As Christians dealing with trials such as dementia, we need to remember that creation in its present state is not how it’s supposed to be. The original state, when Adam and Eve lived in perfect fellowship with God in the temple garden has since been lost upon the entry of sin into the world. We should not, however, despair at the fact that the world has been plunged into sin. Scriptures says:

“You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:7-9).

God, since the Fall, has set in motion a plan of redemption such that, while we see the world in total turmoil––sin and suffering abound––God the Father, through His Son, is redeeming creation along with a people for Himself. Thus, as Christians, we ought to recognize the fact that the world is not in its good state that it was originally intended to be in, but we should also observe that God has put all things in subjection to Christ. Though it does not appear that this is the case, it will become apparent in the fullness of time.

Dunlop puts into perspective the tragic event of dementia in relation to the broader context of God’s redemptive plan. The world is not how it ought to be, and this debauched state of creation accounts for disease and other side effects of sin. However, though this is the case, God is making all things new in Christ and when this is complete, disease will be destroyed forever and the effects of sin will disappear forever.

The Medical Aspects of Dementia

With a pastoral heart, Dunlop goes beyond the ultimate reasons dementia exists (i.e. the Fall). He includes an entire chapter answering the question, What should we know? This is important since not understanding something like dementia often results in not responding to it properly. Dunlop acknowledges this and begins this chapter by writing:

Have you ever thought about how awesome your mind is? The very fact that we can think a thought is amazing. Our brains are packed with countless nerve cells, and the chemicals that go between those cells allow one nerve cell to affect another (p. 30).

God created all things good and the residue of that goodness remains in the complexity of God’s creation as seen in the construction of the human brain, for example. In this chapter, Dunlop explains some of the medical and practical truths concerning dementia so as to equip family members of loved ones who suffer from this terrible disease. I found this book to be especially helpful precisely because it included a sensitive explanation of the disease from a medical-professional point of view. I could have written about how dementia is a result of the Fall of man, and how God is bringing suffering and sin to a close in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. However, if someone were to ask me for practical advice in dealing with a dementia patient, I would be at a loss for words.

Having a printed resource written by a medical doctor on this subject is a gift to the church. Not only does he address dementia from a doctrinal standpoint, but he equips people to understand their loved ones better as they struggle with dementia, enabling Christians to love dementia patience the way they need to be loved. Not only does he talk about the scientific medical aspects of dementia, but he also discusses the experience of the caregiver, and what they may go through.

Experiencing Dementia Through a Caregiver’s Eyes

It’s easy to see that dementia patients have a struggle on their hands, but it’s not always easy to see the struggles of the caregivers. Many times, it is the family member who is forced to watch their loved ones forget all the memories they made together. Alzheimer’s patients often forget the identity of even their closest family members. Sons and daughters become strangers who seem to want to visit a lot. Dunlop writes:

The patient is not the only victim of this dreadful disease; caregivers are just as much, if not more, affected by it. As we must understand what it is like to be the victim, so we must understand what it is like to care for someone with dementia (p. 71).

Here is an element of Dunlop’s book that speaks volumes to readers. Not only must we be sensitive to the dementia patient, understanding their troubles, but we also must not forget the family members and friends who struggle through the caregiving process. Pastors and those preparing for ministry would benefit richly from reading Dunlop’s words here. Family members and friends caring for dementia patients are victims just as much as, if not more than, the dementia patients themselves.

The pastor, and congregation for that matter, ought to try as hard as possible to place themselves in the shoes of caregivers. It is extremely hard to do this if they themselves have never experienced dementia in any sense. Nevertheless, pastoral ministry demands a desire to relate to those in need around us, notwithstanding our past life experiences. Dunlop’s book helps any Christian, leader or layperson, to understand dementia and those who deal with it in the capacity of caregiving.

Conclusion

Resulting from a desire to be balanced, I try to find flaws in the books I review whether those flaws be theological or editorial. I think this helps readers make an informed decision when it comes to purchasing any given volume. In Dunlop’s book, however, it was difficult for me to find anything worth noting. In fact, I really see no reason a Christian should not read this book. It may be addressing a narrow topic, but more than likely, most Christians probably know someone who has dealt with dementia as a caregiver, or has directly known someone who suffered with through the disease. This book helps expand the vistas of pastoral care when it comes to the very specific, yet prolific, disease called dementia. Pastors, deacons, professors, and laypeople can all benefit from this volume.

Recommended Resources

Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by Dr. John Dunlop

Co-founder, editor, and contributor of The Reformed Collective. He is a member and pastoral intern at Word of Life Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO. He has co-coordinated the evangelism ministry at Grace Bible Church in San Diego, CA. At present he is pursuing a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M. Div. He currently resides in Overland Park, KS with his wife, Christina.
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