Depression and Dementia: Help for 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 neatly summarizing our New Life in Christ makes a great starter to this subject. Recently I came across two greeting cards – reminders from former parishioners in Canada who are severely, clinically depressed. The good thing about their plight is that they are looking for help, which is good. “A trouble shared is a trouble halved.” Another woman in one of my churches has gone into virtual seclusion for a year because of the premature death of her daughter – apparently from an accidental drug overdose. Meanwhile a close friend told 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.
And so it goes. Many of you reading his don’t need these reminders. Depression or dementia or more severe organic mental breakdown is becoming a feature of our age. And if you are among the Caregivers 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.
Peace of Mind is a major theme in the New Testament (James 2:18; Romans 5:1). Biblical principles can help us get our arms around this important subject. For beginners: What are the causes of some of our mental and emotional distresses – for the distressed and those trying to help?
1. The World Situation: What some theologians call “existential anxiety” – the sense of creatureliness endemic to just being human – is compounded by the free-floating sense of threat bombarding us from the daily media. Terrorism is a heightened worry since the events of September 11, 2001, replacing the fear of nuclear war my generation grew up with. On the other hand we can’t make too much of this. Just think. There were about 4000 planes in the air on September 11, 2001. Only 4 were hijacked. Seventeen people did die of terror attacks in the United States between 2001 and 2013 but…300 died in their bathtubs. The odds that dramatic screeching trouble won’t come to you are extremely high indeed. Let’s not let rumor and hearsay – especially in an election year – cause us to lose our 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 difference. The people I meet who are handling severe mental distress know that they need to stay with their program. Jesus said, The sick need a physician (Luke 5:31). Do research if you must but in today’s world getting good help is essential. Seek out proven, qualified help. Those of us who are caregivers need to be aware of this even more.
3. Broken Relationships: The death of a spouse, a child, or a divorce can be life-shattering. All the experts say it usually takes two years to get over such a trauma, and that is the average. But look around! 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 48 years of ministry I have found that few people take advantage of the help that is available. Reaching out, asking for help can be the first certain step on the journey to renewed positive living.
4. Facing the Mystery of Ourselves. Once we realize that life constantly throws up difficulties then we are better braced for the turbulence that arises. “Forewarned is forearmed” such as keeping your seat belt hooked up when you are flying. Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams writes about “a world that is often not secure but pulsating with something unmanageable below its surface.” Psychotherapist Scott Peck began his 1979 best seller The Road Less Traveled 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 has have helped many through depression and anxiety. Dr. Peck himself was depressed for an entire year when he turned fifty-five. He himself did not know the cause, but somehow he got through it. After a year he came out of the depression, having learned a great deal from the experience. I can attest to that myself. We all seem to have to pass through bleak periods when we have lost the narrative thread of our lives. But we can come out of it gaining realism, empathy, and emerging much more useful to others in similar straits.
“A Way Out”
Scott 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. Peck says: “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. They stop believing in solutions. How then can we as concerned Christian caregivers help turn this around? Or help ourselves emerge from a dark night of the soul?
1. Remember God's Promises. 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” That is an astonishing promise! 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. And win! They inspire me to dole out godly hope to people who need it. I know God’s Presence works because of these two wonderful ladies who are bearing their burden with his help every day.
2. Learn to go with the flow instead of resisting life. The case history of Jonah (2 Kings 14:23) is of a successful prophet 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 freaked out as we say today! Both “fear and flight” coping mechanisms make up the Book of 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 some of our outmoded and unworkable thought patterns and opinions. It may be time to try something new. I sometimes ask people with a lifetime history of turmoil to write up their experiences, especially the good years. This is called “the writing cure.” No one had asked one man to do that before and the early results were good, because, by the grace of God, we can all look back and see where God was working in our lives. We need to be reminded that even where sin has abounded in our lives grace has much more abounded (Romans 6:23). We spot this when we take the time to stop and look! Doing this is often a springboard to renewed faith and confidence. And we all need that!
3. Cultivate a sense of the ridiculous. Humor is a well-known antidote to depression and stress. Lives of people such as Abraham Lincoln remind us how high achievers can find humor 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). As we get older we have to actively seek out joy, I am learning now at age 73.
4. Be ready for your next teacher. If we were honest we could see that at every stage of our lives the Good God has sent just the people we need into our lives, perhaps in church or at work, or in the family or at the water cooler. They can teach us things just as the mighty Moses learned organizational principles from his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 18). Even Jesus was mightily inspired by a wise centurion’s approach to life (Luke 7:1-10). Most often we are not listening. We are too busy looking down to see up. So, be open, be ready and have an ear to acquire wisdom. You may be surprised where it will come from.
Once when I was discouraged over working out in the gym, seemingly to no effect on my weight loss whatsoever, 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 level of commitment fitted her exuberant outlook. I do believe God sent her with that message. But we have to be “open” to encouragement.
It's important for believers 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 to that. With this kind of help we can navigate the stresses and uncertainties life throws at us. And have fun along the way.