Watching Louis Theroux’s sensitive and charming BBC documentary about Alzheimer’s sufferers has prompted thoughts about the challenge that the phenomenon of dementia offers to beliefs about the human soul and the after-life. The programme, which visited Beatitudes, a residential institution in Phoenix, Arizona, and also sufferers being cared for by loved ones at home, kept circling back to the same set of questions. Is this the same person that I once knew / loved/ married? Does anything remain of that person? If not, then where has that person gone, and who is this person who doesn’t know or remember me, or anything of what they once were?
Watching, or reading about, people suffering from dementia makes you realise just how much of what we regard as a ‘person’ is bound up with their unique cluster of memories, thoughts, beliefs, desires. When these have vanished, what’s left? And what does it do to one’s belief in (or hope for) some kind of survival after death? What exactly will survive of a dementia sufferer: if everything that made them a person, a unique individual, in this life has already gone, then what is it that they take with them into the ‘next’ life? And more urgently: even while the dementia sufferer is still alive, how can we continue to describe them as a ‘person’, with anything resembling a ‘soul’, when they can only live from moment to moment, with no sense of who they are or what’s going on around them?
I think I can anticipate the standard religious response, which might go something like this. Even in the most severe cases, something of the original individual survives: after all, Theroux’s documentary included examples of sufferers momentarily seeming to remember the identity of a loved one, and even expressing what looked like genuine emotion towards them with a kiss or a hug. So perhaps there is still, deep down, a ‘trace’ of the person that doesn’t die? And then there is Auden’s line, ‘What survives of us is love’: as with people who are severely mentally impaired, there is still the capacity to love, and maybe this is what really matters, in the end. And Theroux’s programme also gave some moving examples of how dementia can bring forth extraordinary compassion (as well as obvious frustration and sorrow) in those who care for them, whether they be loved ones or the staff at a centre like Beatitudes.
But I don’t know. On the face of it, dementia seems to challenge the religious view of the human person, and to provide support for the sceptical, scientific view that what we call the ‘soul’ of a person depends, in the end, on the activity of the brain, which is finite and dies with us. Certainly, dementia undermines any ‘naturalistic’ belief in survival beyond death, such as we find in Buddhism, or in ‘folk’ religious notions that assume we’ll all be reunited in some happy hereafter. How so, if everything that makes a person what they are, has already ‘died’ before death?
No, the phenomenon of dementia seems to suggest that the only hope for a life beyond death lies in the active intervention of an all-powerful God to resurrect the individual, and to reconstitute him or her as in some sense a ‘new creation’. Presumably, Christians would maintain that, in the case of dementia sufferers, God will somehow ‘restore’ them to themselves in the hereafter? If ‘our life is hidden with Christ, in God’, then perhaps their memories and all that they have lost through this terrible affliction are also kept safe in the heart of an all-knowing God? Perhaps, for Christians, dementia offers not an insuperable challenge to any belief in the ‘soul’, but a confirmation that the soul is not, in the end, identifiable with the physical, brain-dependent mind – but, as the Church has always taught, something supernatural somehow implanted in the individual by God, and independent of our physical existence?
Finally, I wonder what religious people think happens to the faith of a dementia sufferer? Despite the fact that the residential centre in Theroux’s documentary was called Beatitudes, and the fact that we saw one new resident installing a crucifix on her mantelpiece, very little was made of religion in the programme. But how do you continue to believe, to have a spiritual life, if you can no longer remember who you are, or who God and Jesus are, or how to string even a few words together to say a prayer? Unless, maybe, faith is like music, which those working with dementia sufferers have found to be a powerful tool in caring for them. Another recent BBC documentary (which unfortunately I missed) apparently featured a choir for Alzheimer’s patients: it seems that even the most seriously affected sufferers are able to remember well-loved songs from their earlier lives, and even to learn new ones. Perhaps faith and spirituality, work in a similar way, somehow surviving beneath the tempest-tossed seas of memory loss and confusion?