Caring for a Father with Dementia

It was a pleasant summer evening in Caldwell, Idaho, and my wife and I were sitting in our home watching some TV. The year was 2012. Suddenly my cell phone rang: It was my older brother, calling me to let me know that my dad—who had moved from the Seattle area to Eastern Washington six and a half years previous—had been admitted to a hospital in Seattle. My brother explained I was to call the hospital and talk to my dad to find out what was going on. As soon as I finished with my brother, I called the hospital switchboard and asked to speak with my dad. I will never forget our conversation after talking to him for the first time in six and a half years.

I said, “Dad, it’s me, do you remember me?” My dad said, “Yes.” At this point I’m a mess inside, but I’m not crying. I told him I loved him and asked if he would like to see me; he said "Yes," and we talked for a while more. I tell him I’ll call him back soon, and we hang up. I then call my mom and let her know what has happened. She’s shocked, and asks, “Are you coming to Seattle?”

My wife and I, a few hours after this conversation, hopped in the car and drove the eight hours from Caldwell, Idaho, to Seattle, Washington. During our time in the hospital, I tracked down where he had been, and what brought him there. The doctors told me that he had frontal temporal dementia. In the end, we got him the help he needed; my dad is now stable and living in an assisted living facility in the Seattle area, where he is a member of a solid Reformed Baptist church and attends three weekly Bible studies.

Valuing My Dad as an Image Bearer

One day my dad’s brain will not function as the Lord intends. Yet even then, my dad will an image-bearer of God. I love my dad well by treating him as someone loved and created by God, no matter if he’s having a good day or a bad day.

Over the years, my dad has come to love reading the Bible. On our weekly phone call, we have great theological conversation where he shares what he’s learning, and I listen. I also share what I’ve learned and am still learning from Scripture. At the same time, being a support and encouragement to my dad means letting those who care for him know when he’s not well.

Ministering Through Tears

In the first few years of my dad being back in my life, I struggled with my dad’s dementia and often read about his condition in various medical journals. It became too much for me to read much more about it, and I often cried thinking about what dementia will do to my dad. I still do, from time to time.

John 11:35 tells us that Jesus wept. As fully-God and fully-man, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions, yet never sinned. Hebrews 2:17-18 and Hebrews 4:14-16 in particular have been such an encouragement to me during this time. When hard days come, I can take my dad’s dementia and everything else to the Lord, knowing He loves and cares for me, and that He summons me to go to Him. To bring our cares, struggles, and burdens to the Lord is not a sign of immaturity, but of growing spiritual maturity.

Be Compassionate and Gospel-Centered

One time my dad told me, “I face deep fears and anxieties about dementia.” He also told me, “It is hard to pray and pour those thoughts out to God because it hurts so much.” It hurt to hear him say that, but those words also filled me with compassion for him. I let him know I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to go through having dementia. Then I proceeded to explain that in the New Jerusalem, all things will be made new. "For now, though, as an adopted son of King Jesus, the grace of God abounds towards you, so you can freely come before Jesus, your High Priest." I concluded explaining to my dad how the Psalms help give us the language we need to pour out our cares to our High Priest Jesus in prayer.

The Promises of God and My Dad’s Dementia

One key thing I’ve had to learn amid my dad’s dementia is to trust the Lord and get real with Him. In studying Hebrews in 2012, I discovered more in-depth the promises of God and how they are a bedrock and foundation for the Christian life. This has been and continues to be a balm to my soul.

I’m now over a thousand miles away from my dad—he lives in Seattle, and I live near Los Angeles, CA. But I speak with him weekly, and I’m very encouraged by the work of God’s grace in his life.

Whether you are ministering to those with a severe illness or a disease, please understand the Lord can use you. By growing in grace and holding to the promises of God, you can be used by the Lord in His unfolding story of redemption. By remaining humble and teachable, you can be an instrument to know and make known the glorious news of the Gospel to all around you.

Dave Jenkins (MAR, MDiv, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the executive editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter (@davejjenkins), Facebook (Dave Jenkins SOG), and Instagram.

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