Thought for the Day - Michael Banner

Good morning.

You may have seen a report that scientists have discovered five more genes associated with Alzheimer’s - genes which control certain processes in the body, and so provide targets for treatment. If the effect of these genes could be eliminated, there is a prospect of reducing the incidence of the disease – which as just about everyone knows first-hand from relatives, friends or acquaintances, is a devastating condition, affecting a growing number of people.

The dedication, ingenuity and success of those who are making advances in the basic understanding of the disease, is, of course, good news – but it still leaves all of us with a fundamental challenge. Only some have the opportunity or abilities to work at the frontiers of the medical sciences where treatments for the disease will be discovered. But barring what is not to be expected any time soon, namely a complete eradication of this disease overnight, most of us will have the opportunity, if that is the right word, to work at another frontier. Where there is no effective treatment for the disease, the challenge is to treat humanely those with it; and here, no less than in the laboratory, ingenuity, imagination and dedication are called for.

A colleague said to me recently that his mother, who had been suffering from dementia, and who had died a few weeks before, had in fact died a long time ago. What he meant was clear enough – the woman he had known all his life, with her characteristic personality, seemed to have gone some years before she died. She was no longer the person she had been - which is why Alzheimer’s is referred to as ‘death before death’, the ‘death of the person’, a ‘living death’ – and so on. People with Alzheimer’s can seem to fade away before our very eyes.

The world has always had invisible people – in Jesus’s day they were widows, lepers, the poor and the outcast. And in the stories told about Jesus, he seems to have an uncanny eye for those who might otherwise be overlooked and excluded from community. When people talk about the ‘death of the person’, such ways of speaking are not to be discounted – they plainly express a profound sense of losing someone as they succumb to dementia. But this manner of speaking ought not to be accepted without question. Apart from anything else, the imagery is in danger of discouraging us from caring for the demented before we have even started, since if we take it literally, there is no one there to care for. But as our cognitive capacities fail, the people we once were may still be there, perhaps in fragments. I may forget who I am, or who you are, but finding and sustaining what remains of the person in their diminished state is surely the task and challenge which confronts us.

All power to those who live and work on the frontiers of medical science and seek to eliminate the causes of dementia – but all power too, to those who live on the frontiers of our humanity, and who seek to find and sustain and remain in community with those whom dementia is in danger of rendering invisible.

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