Widows, orphans, and prisoners: God’s heart for elders with dementia

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction …” (James 1:27)

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them …” (Hebrews 13:3)

“‘When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:39-40)

I’ve been thinking about God’s compassionate heart for widows, orphans, and prisoners. And recently I realized that people with Alzheimer’s are widows, orphans, and prisoners – all at the same time.

You probably know elders who are literally widows and widowers, of course, because many have lost a loving spouse, either recently or long ago, frequently after 50, 60, or more married years. In their now single rooms at a memory-care residence, you’ll often see photos of fiftieth wedding anniversaries, family reunions, far-flung travels, and beaming older couples bouncing babies on their knees or flanking proud graduates.

Even when a spouse still lives, dementia creates early widows and widowers as the marriage relationship recedes in consciousness. To be sure, struggling elders often beam with joy when a spouse visits because they know how this person makes them feel – good, safe, loved. But the gifts of intimacy and communication built over decades surrender to the disease.

Age and dementia also create orphans. It’s not unusual to hear elders with Alzheimer’s call out or search anxiously for long-dead mothers and fathers. For various heartbreaking reasons, some also become orphaned by their own children. These befogged seniors feel stranded in an unfamiliar place; they just want to go home, beg to be taken home, wander around looking for home.

And, if you know anyone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, you’ve seen how the disease creates prisoners, fettered by a deteriorating body and mind. The broken brain imprisons words, scrambles syllables and syntax, prevents easy and free expression, erases knowledge, and revokes the dignity of everyday actions.

On bad days, dementia imprisons loved ones in confusion and fear, with no way out. And though compassionate caregivers can and do create beautiful moments, we remain outside the prison walls, without a skeleton key.

Light in the Darkness

God’s call to love and serve “the least of these, my brethren” is not an abstract principle. These elders are my — and your — widows, orphans, and prisoners.

For a few moments, you or I can become a surrogate life partner, celebrating echoes of weddings, births, job changes, cross-country moves — the daily stuff of marriage.

You or I can be a mother, father, or child, recalling the feeling of family bonds during holidays, commemorations, and sorrows.

And your or I can bring a little light into the shadowy prison with a gentle touch, conversation, good food, warm blankets, a clasped hand.

So even if you’ve never thought about leading a bible discussion with your loved one (or a group of elders), maybe it’s time to give it a try. Let me know if you have questions; together, we can love as Jesus loved.

“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
   is God in his holy habitation.” (Isaiah 68:5)

Peace be with you,


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