Salvation in a Dementia Ward

Walking down the long hospital hallway, I approached the room in the emergency area where they had told me she would be found.  As I came near the door, I found a security guard sitting there.  He looked at me with sympathy as I identified myself and, with a warning and sad shaking of his head, gave me permission to enter.

I stepped into the room, my eyes adjusting to the dim lighting.  On the bed, I began to make out the figure of a woman lying there, the loose-fitting hospital gown twisted around her.  She was curled up, yet rocking and even writhing about on the bed.  Groaning, she had her back to me.  But the moment I spoke, she jerked up and, turning, glared at me.  “I know who you are,” she growled at me with eyes I could now see were wild with fear and anger. “You are Mr. Holy-Holy-Holy!”

The next moments stunned me.  Despite past experiences of being near and ministering to people high on drugs, involved in the occult, or living in mental asylums, never had I witnessed anything like this.  Without hyperbole, I can only describe it as demonic.  Lashing out, she commanded me to leave.  “Get out of here!  Now! Get him away from me!”   I felt hopelessness and darkness begin to cast a shadow on my soul, as if I were peering into the pit of hell.  Though I tried to speak peace and gently used her name, my efforts only made the situation worse. The security guard stepped in and suggested I come out of the room.  I complied.  Passing through the doorway, I leaned against the wall of the hallway, scarcely believing what I had just seen. 

What made this all the more awful?  The woman in the room was my mother.

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Following the death of my father in 1988, and compounded by a subsequent unhappy marriage, my mother spiraled in and out of severe depression over the years.  Though in good times she kept her appearance and home neat; loved doting on people, especially her grandchildren; and attended church quite often, she could not keep the depression at bay.  She would withdraw for weeks and then months at a time, staying in bed despite friends and family’s best efforts to engage and encourage her.  Numerous times she had stays in psychiatric wards, each one longer than the last, and her reliance on prescription medication grew.  Almost a decade ago, her husband called and said he would no longer remain in the marriage with her.  She was my responsibility now.

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Several weeks before that day in the emergency room, Mom had fallen and broken the bone in her upper arm.  Though she had received care, the injury sent her from a fragile mental state into a complete lack of desire to live.  She began to quit eating, and again would not leave her bed in the assisted living facility where she was.  Her loss of weight and dehydration had led the staff to admit her into the hospital.  Her hopelessness was consuming her, in body and in soul.

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When we first brought her into our home from the psychiatric ward years ago, I had great hopes that familial love, structured living, close proximity of her grandchildren, exercise, and Biblical counsel would help her.  Upon moving her things from her home, I filled a large garbage bag with half-empty bottles of antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs.  I also found dozens of handwritten lists, with up to fifteen prescription names on them, indicating she had unsuccessfully tried to self-medicate.  With a doctor’s help, we sought to regulate her medications more carefully. Though initially we saw improvements in our home, with her getting to the point she could take long, daily walks with my wife and children, fairly soon the paranoia, inner voices, and resistance to our help began to make the situation unmanageable.  She would roam the house at night, and began running away.  We found a nearby assisted living apartment, with twenty-four hour staff, for her to live in.

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As the medical staff wheeled my mom out of the emergency room that day, I began to follow them up to her room.  When she saw me again, her eyes locked on mine.  She began shrieking again, repeatedly saying,”Get him away from me!  Do you know what he does to me?”  The ride up the elevator was almost unbearable.  Overwhelmed, I began silently weeping, my tear-blurred sight a reflection of my own confused heart.  Seeing her to her room, I stopped at the nursing station to give my contact information.  The nurse reassured me, but the tears did not abate.  Reaching my car in the parking lot, I slumped into the driver’s seat and closed the door.  Sobs from years of frustration yielded to a prayer that now brings me more shame than Mom’s words did that day.  “Lord, if it’s going to be like this, why do you not just take her?”

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Growing up, Mom cared for my brother and me with unwavering devotion.  She was always up cooking us eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast before Dad left for work and we for school.  She oversaw our homework and made sure everything we turned in was done to our best ability.  She was at every sporting event, cheering us on.  The truth be told, I do not think I even made my bed before I went to college.  Her husband and her sons were her joy and pride.  As much as she loved us, I think that was also at the root of these problems.  When her boys left for school and marriages, and her husband was gone for good, she felt lost.  She needed something greater than any of us could give her.

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The years trying to love and minister to Mom before that day in the hospital were ones filled with the question, “What do we do now?”  Though we sought to tell her of the love of Christ, and people in church ministered to her, she pushed it all away.  I went through experiences that I would never have imagined.  Early on I had to file papers to become her court-appointed guardian, first to represent her in divorce court then to have a feeding tube inserted because she had quit eating and had dropped below ninety pounds.  Subsequent years were filled with other battles, such as trying to get Mom to not fear she was running out of money; seeking to convince her there were not law enforcement agents in the next apartment stalking her; and transporting her to repeated trips to doctors and stays in psychiatric units.  When I would visit, she would often ask me to leave after a short amount of time.  She no longer asked questions or seemed very interested in family. Mom never laughed or smiled, nor did she cry.  When she began to run away from the assisted living complex, they had to put her in the dementia unit with locked doors.  I recall at that time a feeling of resignation, as if she were declining and now there was no hope of reclaiming her.

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Yet today when I visit her, Mom’s face lights up with joy.  “There’s my son!” she exclaims to the nearest person within earshot.  “The tall guy who preaches the Bible.”  She says this repeatedly to everyone who passes by.  She hugs me, and often wants to hold and kiss my hand while we visit.  She tells me over and over again, “I am so glad you came to see me.  You do not what it means to me that you came to see me.”   For some reason, she calls me Jack now. When I call her Jill in response, she laughs every time and recites part of the nursery rhyme.  One of the nurses has even given her the nickname “Giggles” because she is always smiling and laughing. 

My brother and I recently visited her.  The last time she had not recognized him, and on this visit initially kept referring only to me as her “son” in the singular.  Yet when we were leaving she turned and told the lady next to her, “Those tall guys are my sons.”

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“How did this change happen?” people ask when I tell them.  Usually they are looking for means, which God does use.  I can point to such things as the dedication of the staff in the unit who have shown genuine love to her; the geriatric psychiatrist she now has who actually listens to the desires of the family and has her on low, appropriate medication dosages; or how her change coincided with our congregation holding devotional services on Sunday afternoons in her unit.  Yet none of these things really explain the change of spirit and joy my mother has even when she is ill or a difficult incident occurs in her day.

The Lord can work through means, but in the regeneration of salvation Jonathan Edwards taught of the Lord’s immediate work, where immediate has its original sense of “without means.”  The Lord operates directly on the souls of people in conversion, bringing them from death to life, without human agency.  That is what has happened to my mom.

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For I think my mom should be allowed to answer this question for herself.  When I ask her “Mom, why are you so happy today?” hear what she says.  “Jesus makes me happy,” she consistently replies without any coaching.  Yes, it is said like a young child would say it, and Mom certainly seems more like a happy, little girl than a septuagenarian who is now a great-grandmother.  And yes, some who approach these things in only a materialistic fashion, as too many of her doctors did, would just claim this is a reversion brought on by the dementia.  But what they cannot understand is that Mom has never been this way.  When I am with her I, who once heard a demon voice taunting me, am now hearing the loving Spirit of Jesus speaking to me.  Stripped of everything in this world that she once had put her hope in – family, possessions, relationships, even memories – she now only has one Hope that she clings to in childlike trust.  The Lord, who delights to make men and women as children as He brings them into His kingdom, has done so once again.

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I know it is God’s work for one other reason.  Mom is not the only one who has experienced salvation in the dementia ward.  With a boast that is only in the Lord, I can say that He has transformed me as well. Rather than dreading to see her, I look forward to each visit.  And, most notably, the shame of that prayer on that awful day is being replaced with the sincere prayer that – in the most important sense of this – He would make me more like my mom.

24 Comments

  1. Angelina March 25, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    And Jesus has made me happy, that He has given both you and Nanny this gift! Sniff, sniff. He is so good! His plans are so mysterious. May He show you another glorious and mysterious salvation in an unexpected location. Praying so, for His glory.

  2. Pam Fisher March 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    Praising God with you and your family, Barry.

  3. Joan March 25, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    Very touched and humbled by your post. Blessings to you and your mom. Thanks be to God!

  4. Shane March 25, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    Praise our great Savior–risen to his throne to grant repentance and faith!

    I’m an emergency nurse who often prays for the salvation of the mentally ill and addicts–thank you for a reminder that God is able to save to the uttermost.

  5. Rebekah Brown March 25, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

    Such happy news! And a sweet reminder to never lose hope. Nothing is impossible with God.

  6. CFS March 26, 2014 at 1:08 am #

    This is such a beautiful reminder that, yes, it is the Lord and only the Lord who changes hearts. It’s encouraged me today to persevere in praying for the others who need Him, never mind what I think of their mental or physical state. Also knowing where your story was going, I stopped halfway through reading with the prayer that God might move so graciously and powerfully in my own heart. Thanks for such a well-written, God-glorifying story of the heart-wrenching, heart-changing journey that you’ve walked.

  7. B March 26, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    I remember the tears of those difficult years. This great outcome brings Psalm 126 to mind. Thank you for sharing such encouraging news!

  8. Susan D. March 26, 2014 at 2:18 am #

    When we visited her last week, Ron led the singing, prayer and lesson. Afterward he was walking her back to her room. I offered to walk her back, but she wanted to go with him. “That’s my son,” she said to me. Apparently she’ll claim to be the mother of any “preachers.” She was so happy. Another lady came late since her two daughters were visiting her. They wheeled her back to the room we were in. “I see you had visitors,” I said.
    “I did?” she asked. They were still holding onto her wheel chair and she had already forgotten them. However, she knows the songs and is joyful in the Lord too.

  9. David Carr March 26, 2014 at 2:21 am #

    What a blessing to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! And to have hope anchored in the Word of God ratified by the work of His Spirit in those we love.
    For your Mom and others with similar story, the dementia ward is the first, and maybe only place where they are really in their right mind – agreeing with the Scriptures that Jesus is Lord and Savior. It’s hard to know what to expect, but I pray that you will see signs of spiritual growth and a deepening love of Jesus. Hope your children have enough time with their Grandma to remember the marvelous transformation that God has done, to be able to pass that story down the generations.

  10. Ed Blackwood March 26, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Hi, Barry – this is a powerfully moving account of God’s grace in your mom and in you. Is she living in PA now as well?

    Blessings,
    Ed

  11. Kristy Mapp March 26, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    What an amazing story of how God can change a heart. I found myself placing my own mother in the story at the part when she gave everything for her children, and now.. nothing. My mom attends BSF with me but her heart is far from the Lord and this story gave me a glimmer of hope that has been fading for her. Maybe some day soon my mom will have that heart of a child that I see defining those who truly love the Lord, just like yours. Thank you.

  12. Jody March 27, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Thank you for sharing that story. I hope this gives comfort to thousands like it did for me.

  13. Jamie Hughes March 27, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Barry, we too are dealing with disease. My grandfather is changing right before my very eyes, and while I know it’s part of God’s grand design, I find myself kicking against it more than I embrace it. Thank you for your encouragement and the reminder that this season of life, though painful, has a purpose.

  14. David Swartz March 27, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Been there with my Mom. Don’t beat yourself up too badly over asking the Lord to just take her. It’s an honest prayer for both the dementia patient and the care giver even (and especially) when prayed under duress. “According to His will He hears us…” God sorts it out. Guilt feelings do not comprise biblical guilt. That said, thank you for sharing this. While all adult caregivers may not see this response even with their Christian patients, we must not yield to the strong pressure to give up on God, to limit His touch through the creeping fatigue of unbelief. Deuteronomy 33:25 is a great encouragement and help.

  15. Ethan Larson March 27, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    i am in awe of God’s grace here. soli Deo gloria.

  16. Barry York March 27, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    Thank you all for your kind comments. I’m grateful to the Lord that this story is an encouragement to you.

    • jerry goodman March 29, 2014 at 3:22 am #

      I was wondering if you had a geriatric psychologist evaluate your mother early on. I facilitate a weekly caregivers support group who have loved ones in the journey of dementia. Since there are some 70+ dementia’s, it is a great insight for evalations so that the individual can recieve the proper care which includes proper meds. to help. Since I can only take your journey at face value as you wrote this difficult time foe you and your mother, I hope that others who are discovering confusion and changes that can be helped by knowledgable physicians, prayer and love. One of our country’s biggest challenges is understanding and providing help for those in dementia and mental issues. We (our nation) must begin to take care of our own before we try to solve everyone else’s problems. Thank you for sharing and may you become the one who might explore what can be done for so many. jerry

  17. Karen Butler March 27, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Thank you for telling this encouraging story. I remember having just such horrible moments with a demonic seeming mother, and praying that kind of prayer, and feeling so guilty– but my mother was suffering so, and she had such a hard life. My mother was in and out of psychiatric wards as well, diagnosed with “schizoaffective disorder”, but she also found comfort in the Gospel at the end of her life! She weaned off psychotropic drugs completely, and was very lucid. The social workers were amazed at her peace and joy. My sister read the Bible to her everyday, and once, when asked why she, a lifelong Catholic, was assured that she would not need to spend time in Purgatory, she radiantly replied, “Because he paid the price!”

    We mustn’t underestimate the power of the Gospel to reach these marginalized “mentally ill”, nor overmedicate them when they are showing a natural fear of death — especially dementia patients! It is unwarranted and risky, according to a study of antipsychotics used to treat 75,445 patients in nursing homes in the United States, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Columbia and Rutgers found that “their use cannot be justified as evidence based, and there are clear data confirming their associated risk.”

  18. Jim March 28, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Stories like these not only lift up your brothers and sisters in Christ but it also gives many hope. Even in the most impossible (humanly speaking) circumstances whether it be a child not walking with the Lord or a parent or friend that seems unreachable through a hard heart or mental illness, this gives them hope. I praise God with you and your family!

  19. Susan S. March 29, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    This bring tears to my eyes as we have prayed for her for so many years! God is so good…he has sustained you in these very difficult times and brought His joy, peace, love and forgiveness to your mother. What a wonderful, glorious story of God’s redemption and love!

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