World Day of the Sick Conference 2018
DEMENTIA FRIENDLY PARISH COMMUNITIES
Words of introduction of
Most Rev, Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Saint Agnes Parish Centre, Crumlin, 10th February 2018
Longevity is a particular gift of God to our contemporary world. In the Western World, we watch average life expectancy continuously rise. Modern medical research has led to reduced infant mortality. There is a reduction in the incidence of certain infective diseases that even in my own lifetime had relentlessly affected young people. Progress in the quality of health care has reduced morbidity. In addition, there is today a growing awareness of what constitutes healthy life style.
We are living longer. We thank God for such progress while we cannot at the same time fail to recognise that the progress registered in our Western World has not been matched in many parts of the world where life expectancy has even been reduced.
At the same time, longevity has opened up new challenges, particularly of diseases that often emerge later in life and are of a degenerative character. This morning you will hear something of the statistics of the incidence of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and other variants. I am not a medical doctor or an expert in dealing with dementia. What I can say is that for most of us dementia constitutes one our ultimate fears about the latter days of our own lives as we watch the effects of dementias on people we know and on their families. Dementia for most of us is something that touches a raw nerve.
Dementia appears to us as a slow journey into a darkness that we find hard to understand and to accept. There is little that is more painful for family members than to watch the gradual deterioration in the quality of relationships with a loved one. Slowly the normal relations of mutual love and support begin to diminish and a loved partner becomes more and more distant and dependant and unable to express needs.
I am very pleased that the Dublin World Day of the Sick Committee has chosen the theme of today’ meeting: Dementia Friendly Parish Communities. A vibrant parish community can be part of an overall and integrated support for sufferers of dementia and their dear ones. Jesus always had a special care for the sick but a particular care for those who were troubled in the depth of the hearts.
The parish community can bring a special contribution to the process of early identification of dementia and support for those who face the initial steps of dementia, which for sufferers is the beginnings of a feared passage into an unknown. Nothing is more fearful than facing an unknown.
Healthcare is not just about fighting disease. It is about the hope that every human being can live as full and satisfying a life for as long as is feasible and be surrounded by a circle of support and comfort that will enable them to do so. The person suffering from dementia belong to a community and that community is an element of continuity as loss of memory reduces the possibilities of coping with the evolving grief.
This experience of grief that surrounds dementia is for sufferers and carers alike somewhat similar to a sense of bereavement, a bereavement in advance of death. As those factors that have held relationships together over years begin to disintegrate, the sense of grief and helplessness deepens and carers find it more difficult to face what is involved in care just when that care is most needed.
The person suffering dementia inevitably begins to feel abandoned and unable to communicate. As the quality of relationship fades, there can be the temptation on the part of a parish to focus less on the care of the sufferer and respond principally to the growing needs of the family and carers.
There is the danger that the sufferer might then feel the ultimate abandonment in their situation, the sense that even God has abandoned them at a time when his presence and his love is even more needed. Pastoral care of sufferers of dementia includes surrounding the sufferer with those symbols and rituals that were in healthier times the signs of the care of God and of a believing community.
I wish every blessing on your reflections this morning and I am grateful to Bishop Field and his team and those who will be taking part in this very valuable session.