Anyone who knew my husband, knew him as a tall, handsome, dignified 'in charge' kind of guy. I must admit I was proud to be seen with him.
Sickness is devastating in any form and the loss of dignity is acute in most cases. Just needing help from others, in some sense, is an affront to personal dignity...or is it pride? I still haven't completely decided on that yet. In all probability, it is both....at least initially. But time in the trenches with a disease will slowly erode, or perhaps a more accurate word would be excise, our pride. We are left then with the assignment of trying to help maintain some sense of dignity for the person suffering.
I am still chronically in tune with the early days of my husband's symptoms of dementia. Each day brought new devastation as portions of his brain refused to function normally. From asking people for money, to inappropriately touching people, to hygiene issues, to falling out of bed and more, much more, the ravages of this hellish disease were on the march. Yet, he did not know or understand my fear and concerns. In an attempt to help him come to some kind of terms in regard to what was happening, I would often, very calmly, tell him that he had a brain disease but not to worry because “I've got you.” He in turn would look at me and say, “You're wrong...YOU have a brain disease.” The attempts at explanation were futile.
I know that men, in general, find their identity in 'what they do.' My husband was no exception. He loved what he did and it brought him great joy, but unfortunately the thing that brought him this joy was also the thing that brought the most hurtful blow to his shattering world. He was no longer able to function in the ministry job that brought him a fulfillment and sense of destiny that no one or no thing had up to that point. He could not grasp what had happened and asked me repeatedly why he wasn't teaching, traveling, having meetings etc. Where had all the people gone that yesterday needed his advice? Oh how my heart ached as I, once again, tried in vain to give him some acceptable reason so as to cushion the brokenness in his heart.
I repeatedly told him that he was loved and appreciated by many but nothing registered in his deteriorating brain. All he could grasp was that he had lost! For months, even years, I tried to facilitate opportunities for him to function in areas to reinforce a sense of dignity. At family gatherings we would ask him to pray, or to read a devotional, or sing...anything to help him regain a moment, a memory, of his true identity. But little by little the disease was taking over and the final blow came in a seemingly innocuous event...I took the car keys away...his last symbol of control.
Cruel, debilitating events ravage the core of the person's dignity. However, there is another kind of dignity. It is for those of us who still remember. It is a dignity of never forgetting the life lived for the person that has forgotten everything. In essence, remembering and referencing him is sustaining his dignity as a man with worth and purpose.
The memories for him are gone but they are alive and well in those of us who remember!