Ageing, dementia, narrative and identity

by Joss Bryan

In Rembrandt’s self- portraits we track him ageing from his youthful days bursting with energy, to his prosperous middle-age and finally his sad decline into poverty and old age– he becomes an old man characterised by loss. In these and other portraits of his elderly patrons, Rembrandt captures the effects of time on the human body- skin that sags and folds, hands that are dry and knarled by years of activity, whispy, hair – grey and course, and eyes translucent hiding thoughts, fears, hopes. These portraits show us what the process of ageing does to the human body and give us a glimpse of the mystery, the tragedy and the beauty of human ageing.

Life expectancy has doubled over the past 150 years. There is a preoccupation in our culture with the problem of ageing, and caring for the increasing number of older people. Growing old, it seems has little to commend it. Many of us fear reaching this stage of life when we face loss of energy, agility, hearing, sight, taste, hair, dignity and independence; perhaps worse still, loss of our intellectual capabilities; loss of memory.

The stage of Old Age presents us with the reality that our bodies and minds will and do wear out as we draw closer to our inevitable death and many of us in adulthood fear a diagnosis of dementia. We dread the degeneration of our memory and our minds, that essential part of us, which is the centre of our knowledge and understanding. St Augustine in his confessions noted that memory is a ‘great storehouse’, ‘an inner place’, ‘without it I could not speak of myself’, ‘it is my mind, it is myself’[1]. The experience of living with dementia is one in which memories fragment and disappear and the story of who you are disappears bit by bit from you.

How might the Christian faith speak into the vanishing self of the person living with dementia within a context dominated by the language of personhood, which emphasises the capabilities of cognition, self-awareness, memory and the sense of the continuity of self over time.  John Swinton suggests to be a person is to born into and to participate in the human family, and it is our relationality, which is fundamental to our personhood[2].  As Christians, we believe that every human being is created by God, dependent on God and dependent on other human beings. This dependency begins at the moment of our conception and continues throughout our lives. It is a fundamental characteristic of the human person, and the embodiment of our relationality. It also mirrors our ultimate dependency on God the creator. Therefore, the experience of dependency for people living with dementia, and indeed for everyone at whatever age, does not reduce our personhood. Rather, is a reminder of the nature of who we are as creatures and our relationship with God our creator.

In Luke Chapter 2: 25-35, we find the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple, and old Simeon. It is a story of hope, which extends beyond death. Simeon does not represent the past, nor is he a nostalgic figure; rather, he is someone whose identity and narrative is orientated towards the future. His life-story was shaped by a devout faith, which hoped in God’s promises. It was defined by the moment he knew that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. The anticipation of this was the silver thread in his story.

Simeon in the Temple with the Christ Child is one of Rembrandt’s last paintings. Simeon’s eyes are shut, Mary gazes at Jesus cradled in Simeon’s old hands. In this misty scene, Rembrandt depicts the moment when Simeon sees at last the light of salvation and he prays ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Simeon is ready to end his story and return his breath to the God who gave it to him. The end he imagined has come. He has cradled the continuation of the story of salvation from which Christians for centuries have claimed their identity. It is the story which the Church sustains and holds on behalf of all humanity. It confers an identity on every human being and finds its source in God and our relationship with God. People with dementia may not remember the past in a systematic or chronological way and they may have little conception of the future, rather they are in the present. Is it too much to suggest that we can conceive of each present moment as part of every person’s continuing story with God – whoever they are? The Christ child revealed the eternal truth that in him we can see salvation and that we have a relationship with the God of love, which gives us an identity, which transcends time. So, when that final moment of our life comes, we have nothing to fear, and like Simeon we can depart in peace.

Based on a sermon preached at Jesus College, Cambridge, 13 November 2016.

[1] St Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Classics, 2002) X8,9,16,17.

[2] Swinton, J., 2012, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, London: SCM Press.

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7 thoughts on “Ageing, dementia, narrative and identity”

  1. Thank you Joss for your writings this morning. I found the idea of returning our breath to God in death quite “breathtakingly ” wonderful and very much food for thought.

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  2. Thank you Joss for your timely reflection, particularly as the Methodist Church moves from one year to the next.

    I am particularly drawn to your penultimate reflection on the present. I fear that we spend far too much time remembering the past and even more anticipating the future that we do not give enough focus to the present – to enjoying the moment. Perhaps this is something that people with dementia can remind us of – even, call us back to?

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    1. I do agree and I am wowed by the question, “Is it too much to suggest that we can conceive of each present moment as part of every person`s continuing story with God — whoever they are?”

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    2. Tend to agree with you Graham. Personal view is that we need to look back to learn from mistakes but then move on. I am all for re-imagining the future (although some of us seem to have been trying to do it for a long time!!) but there won’t be a viable future if we neglect the present.

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    3. I think there is something to learn from Jesus here about time and looking back and looking forward. Remembering the past and anticipating the future can lead to regret or nostalgia for what has been and anxiety concerning what is to come. Kierkegaard said…Jesus was able to live without anxiety ‘because he had eternity with him in the day that is called today’. Memory and narrative enable us to make sense of our lives in relation to the passage of time but the story of salvation is one which brings about the intersection of time with eternity and hope for the future. How do we enable eternity to shape our living in the present?

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  3. Thank you, Joss Bryan, for this beautiful reflection on ageing, dementia and death.
    ‘Simeon is ready to end his story and return his breath to the God who gave it to him.’
    This is exactly how I see death, a returning of our breath (or spirit) to the God who breathed life into us.

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  4. Thank you for this rich offering. I am reaching a stage where these are very real issues for me, my relatives and friends. There is so much here to help me.

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