Discovering God’s presence in the dementia ward

Lorraine Murray’s latest book is a mystery, “Death Dons a Mask.” She can be reached by email at

Anyone with a family member who has dementia knows it is a vexing disease. Oddly enough, the patients often seem to undergo less heartbreak than folks who remember what they were like before the illness ravaged their minds.

My husband and I took a crash course on dementia via the Internet when my mother-in-law — who had been living independently out of town for years — fell prey to this monstrous illness.

We first became concerned when she needed surgery at an Atlanta hospital. My husband brought her to our home, and we soon saw how fuzzy-brained she seemed. The surgery went fine, but afterward her confusion intensified drastically.

We began living on emergency mode the night the nurses called to report she was pulling out her IVs and would need a round-the-clock sitter to calm her down. During the lengthy rehabilitation period that followed the surgery, we hoped she would regain her strength and mental clarity, but before long the doctors told us the dreaded news.

She had dementia, and she would need convalescent care for the rest of her life.

Once she was accepted into a nursing home near our house, we breathed a sigh of relief. Until, that is, we got calls from the nurses telling us she was getting into fights with her roommate.

And, oh yes, roaming up and down the halls in her wheelchair threatening to kill the other residents. Getting her into a private room has solved many problems, and peace has been restored. For now, at least.

It’s a real challenge to sense God’s presence in the dementia ward, but I believe he’s there. He’s there in the nurses who referee disagreements, and dress and feed the patients.

He’s there in the ladies who change the linens, the fellows who paint the walls and the kitchen staff who prepare the meals. And in the souls of the patients themselves, who call to mind the words of Jesus Christ: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

When we visit my mother-in-law, she is sometimes napping while clutching her favorite stuffed bear. When she awakens, she’s eager to munch on the homemade chocolates we bring her.

She usually recognizes us, although she occasionally will mistake her son — my husband — for her brother or her long-deceased husband. She also will ask me how my mom is doing, forgetting she died decades ago.

Occasionally she’ll tell us there are invisible people residing in her room or snakes outside that want to attack her. Other times, she regales us with stories of her childhood.

Some days, I confess, I dread going to see her because I remember her as a witty, articulate schoolteacher rather than the lady with the stuffed bear. But when she beams us a big smile of welcome, I remember what’s really going on here.

Yes, we are coming to see a relative bearing a painful cross. But, more than that, we are in a mystical and mysterious way visiting Christ himself.