Esther Talbert cared for her mother-in-law through Alzheimer’s stretching out well over a decade.
Here are just a few of her meditations and lessons learned:
The subheading to Psalm 71 in my Bible read, “A Prayer for Old Age.” That caught my attention one morning. That and verse 1: In Thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion.
That puzzled me. We were in our 11th year of caring for my mother-in-law in our home. She was 81. A believer. And a victim of Alzheimer’s. Mom had definitely been “put to confusion”! Then I discovered that “put to confusion” refers to humiliation or public disgrace. The same word is often translated “ashamed” or “put to shame.” So, what could Psalm 71 (and Mom) teach me, as a caregiver, about old age?
Fears of Old Age
The psalmist prayed that he would never be put to shame because he had put his trust in the Lord.
Mom had done that 35 years before, when her husband of 25 years was divorcing her. Her life so changed that within 2 years, three of her four adult children also came to the Lord; the fourth was saved several years later. While her life as she had always known it was crumbling around her, she had an irrepressible joy and delight in her new-found Lord, and a testimony of generous love and kindness to others. To me, she had been an ideal mother-in-law. No, she was never put to shame, because she did put her trust in the Lord.
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
Do not forsake me when my strength fails. (71:9 NASB)
Had God turned His back on Mom in her old age by abandoning her to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? Did her radical forgetfulness mean He had forgotten her? Faith and experience both emphatically answer no. God was very much in control of Mom’s mind and condition.
Alzheimer’s breaks the hearts of loved ones watching from the outside. But in Mom’s case, she generally appeared to be blissfully unaware of what was happening. Alzheimer’s brings curses, but also its own strange blessings. Gone from Mom’s mind was the pain of divorce that she had carried for over two decades. Even her blood pressure returned to normal after years of hypertension, as she grew too childlike to worry.
For my enemies have spoken against me;
And those who watch for my life have consulted together,
Saying, “God has forsaken him;
Pursue and seize him, for there is no one to deliver.” (71:10-11 NASB)
Mom was a nursing instructor. (My nursing instructor, in fact.) She’d seen what it could be like to be cared for in a nursing home and dreaded ever having to go to one. Now there are many fine facilities and sometimes children have no choice but to make use of full-time care. In our case God, in His abundant mercy, allowed Mom to stay at home with us to the very end. He gave to us the guidance, the motivation, and the strength to care for her. He did not forsake His child.
And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me,
Until I declare Your strength to this generation,
Your power to all who are to come. (71:18 NASB)
As a nursing instructor, Mom imparted to her students far more than sterile technique and starting IVs. To many of us she was a surrogate mother and spiritual counselor who showed the strength and sweetness, the love and faithfulness of the Lord. Even when Alzheimer’s robbed Mom of the ability to minister in these ways, God was still using her.
A friend who had travelled this road before us made what was, for us, a perspective-shifting observation: there’s a reason God leaves the elderly and infirm among us, and it’s usually not for their benefit; it’s for ours. Surely God could cut short the suffering of His children if He chose. At some point along the twisted road of dementia God’s work of sanctification grinds to a halt. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t minister through them anymore. If we are not too busy and self-absorbed, God will use them to teach us the qualities of Christ that we lack. He may be done in them (who can say?) but He’s not done with them. There is a transformation of character He intends to accomplish in us by confronting us with their presence and their needs. As Alzheimer’s began ending Mom’s life, much of God’s work in us and others, through Mom, was just beginning.
Convictions for Old Age
I will make mention of Your Righteousness, Yours alone.
For Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens. (71:16b, 19a NASB)
My lips shall greatly rejoice when I sing unto Thee,
And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed. (71:23 KJV)
God called Mom out of the darkness of Catholicism and showed her the way to life everlasting by a righteousness not her own. She has been redeemed and will live forever with Him. All else pales into insignificance.
Hope for Old Age
For You are my hope;
O Lord God, You are my confidence from my youth.
But as for me, I will hope continually,
And will praise You yet more and more. (71:5, 14, NASB)
Thou which hast shown me great and sore troubles shalt quicken me,
and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth.
Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side. (71:20, 21 KJV)
When the Lord finally called Mom home, all the “great and sore troubles” vanished like a puff of smoke in a sudden wind. The Lord who shepherded her through this earthly life and laid her body in the depths of the earth will again raise her body, refashioned and healed of all ills. He has already set her on high with Him in everlasting comfort. She is rejoicing in His wisdom and grace, with a keen mind, and with a fervent heart she is declaring the praises of her God.
Lessons from Old Age
Is God trying to change and mold you through the care of an elderly loved one? He showed me my wicked heart, my impatience, and my total dependence on Him.
Do you long to be used by God? Rejoice if you can be God’s instrument to keep your parent or grandparent from feeling cast out and forsaken of God.
Prioritize your values. We had to come to the realization that caring for Mom was more important than part time work for me, and career changes for my husband.
Are you making it easy for them to declare God’s strength to your generation? Let him tell the same story over and over. Sing hymns with her. Mom could croak out familiar hymns long after she stopped talking altogether.
Are you modeling the 5th commandment for your children? Lovingly caring for your elder is one way that you can demonstrate Christlikeness and “declare God’s strength” to the next generation.