Depression, Dementia and Caregivers

By Neil Earle

Ephesians 2:3-6: "God who is rich in mercy, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up together and made us sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."

This inspiring text together with Jesus’ call to live life more abundantly (John 10:10) is a good starter to this subject. On my way to type up this sermon I came across two greeting cards – reminders of former parishioners in Canada who are severely, clinically depressed. The major upshot is that they are looking for help, which is good. Another woman in one of my churches has gone into virtual seclusion for a year because of the premature death of her daughter – apparently an accidental drug overdose. Then last summer a close friend tells me he knew of his aging parent’s inability to cope when he smelled plastic burning on the stove – they had forgotten to remove the kettle boiling the tea on the stove, a daily ritual in the past.

Many of you hearing me know what this is all about. Depression or simple dementia or more severe organic mental breakdown is becoming a challenge of our age. And if you are in what is called “the Sandwich Generation” (ages 50-65) you probably know all about it. There are people out there and among our close family looking for help.

Let’s take a look at this subject of mental health and the Christian this morning. Let’s start with some of the causes of mental distress.

  1. The World Situation: No one “seems” safe in today's world. Terrorism is a constant threat as the bombing in Boston reminds us. Consider the thought of a dirty bomb exploding in Los Angeles. On the other hand we can’t make too much of this. There were about 4000 planes in the air on September 11, 2001. Only 4 were hijacked. Seventeen people died of terror attacks since 9/11; 300 died in their bathtubs. The odds that trouble won’t come to you are extremely high indeed. Let’s not let those who depend on us lose their grip.

  2. Heredity: Alcoholism, homosexuality, overweight are all influenced by genetics. Genetics is a big word if you’ve visited a doctor lately. But so are some of the techniques and prescriptions that can make a big difference. Almost all the people I talk to who keep handling severe mental distress know that they need to stay with a medical program. Side effects notwithstanding, the ability to lead a more normal life including holding a job is greatly enhanced be the discipline of “taking your meds.” Even Jesus said, The sick need a physician. The best medical help you can afford is indispensible when you are trying to help people through depression or dementia. Seek out qualified help. Don’t take this on by yourself.

  3. Broken Relationships: The death of a spouse, a child, or a divorce can be life-altering. All the experts say it usually takes two years to get over, and that on the averages. But many churches and most community agencies offer support groups for some of these emotional stressors. Start with your local library for a working list. A large church nearby can also be good resource, many of them staffed with professionals, not just well-meaning laymen. As the King James Bible puts it: “Two are better than one and a threefold cord is not soon broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

These are not “popcorn” solutions. There are times in our life when we can all use a helping hand. The fact is after 41 years of ministry I have found that few people even practice these simplest solutions to take in a family or friendly crisis. Reach out and ask for help. That can be the first certain step on the journey.

  1. Facing the the Mystery of Ourselves. Once we realize that life constantly throws up difficulties then we are better braced for the turbulence that arises, like keeping your seat belt hooked up when you are flying. Anglican archbishop Rowan Williamns writes about “a world that is often not secure but pulsating with something unmanageable below its surface.” Psychotherapist Scott Peck (pictured, right) began his 1979 best seller with the simple “Life is difficult.” He knew that once we accepted that stark fact then we are better motivated to look for solutions, to be students of good mental health all our lives.

Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled has helped many through depression and anxiety. Dr. Peck himself was depressed for an entire year when he turned fifty-five. He didn't know the cause, but just toughed it out. After a year he came out of the depression, having learned a great deal from the experience.

“A Way Out”

Peck recognized that the whole challenge of life lies in confronting and solving problems. “It is through the pain of confronting problems,” he says, that we grow mentally and spiritually. In fear of pain, we attempt to avoid the problems. “The tendency to avoid problems is the first basis of mental illness.” A person tries to avoid problems by the use of drugs, food, relationships, etc. which only creates bigger problems. This results in neurosis. Neurosis is a substitute for facing problems. In mental illness, people often see no way out, no exit and stop believing in solutions. How then can we as Christian caregivers help turn this around.

  1. Remember God's Promises. 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” He promises to allow nothing to come your way that you cannot handle. He will also “provide a way out so you can bear up under it.” I mentioned two people with severe psychoses I try to stay in touch with. I also get letters from two inspiring shut-ins who seem to face almost every health issue in the book on a more or less regular basis. They inspire me to dole out godly hope to people who need it. I know God’s form of therapy works because of these two wonderful ladies who are bearing their burden with the help of God.

  2. Learn to go with the flow instead of resisting life. The case history of Jonah is of a successful prophet (2 Kings 14:23) who did well as long as God was working through his frame of reference: “Israel good/ Gentiles bad." God had a different paradigm, and when Jonah was told to go to unfriendly quarters he tried to escape. This is both “fear and flight.” Read Jonah, Chapter One. He was willing to be thrown overboard, facing death rather than to face his “issues.” God had contradicted Jonah's neat and simple approach to life.

Like Jonah, we too need to learn to give up our desperately outmoded and unworkable thought patterns and opinions and try something new. I’m about to ask one man with a lifetime history of turmoil to write up his experiences, especially the good years. This is called “the writing cure.” No one has asked him to do that before and I am already optimistic about the early results because, by the grace of God, all lives have significance. We must always remember that where sin has abounded in our lives grace has much more abounded (Romans 6:23). We sometimes have to stop and ponder and meditate to get a renewed grasp on that.

  1. Cultivate a sense of the ridiculous. Humor is a well-known antidote to depression and stress. As the recent movie “Lincoln” reminds us, great men can find something humorous even in the face of scalding reversals and adversity. Teach your mentees to surround themselves with people of optimism and humor. This is another Biblical recipe, and it works (Proverbs 17:22).

  2. Be ready for your next teacher. God sends people to us all the time, perhaps in church or at work, or in the family or at our coffee spot. They can teach us things. Most often we are not listening. We are too busy looking down to see up. Be open, be ready and have an ear to acquire wisdom. You’ll be surprised where those sources will come from.

When I was discouraged over working out in the gym seemingly to no effect on my weight, a slight 5’ 2” 80-ish “sweet little lady” with gray hair who had just done 30 minutes on the treadmill walked past my workout station and said with a loud voice, “Persevere.” I later learned she was a retired missionary to East Asia. That fits. I do believe God sent her with that message. But you have to be open to encouragement.

Look for the Daniels in your life. As was said of him by a wise mother: “There is a man in your kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar your father, the king, I say, your father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers (Daniel 5:11)."

It's important to remember God is always there even if he is behind the scenes (Isaiah 45:15). He tells us, whether we are caregivers or needy receivers: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:8). Amen. We can take that to the bank.