The candle burning bright beyond dementia

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©Glowimages – models for illustrative purposes only

Nobel Peace prize winner Albert Schweitzer once quipped: “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory”.  A bad memory? Well, who doesn’t have a skeleton or three in the closet they’d rather forget!

Today, though, brain-related disorders, including memory loss, present the most daunting of bad health scenarios – for individuals, their carers and cash-strapped health budgets. Such disorders “will affect at least one in every three of us during our life and treating these disorders already costs some 800 billion Euro in Europe every year,” according to  the European Commission.

The Commission have designated May “European Month of the Brain”. There are conferences taking place throughout Europe including two major meetings in Brussels and in Dublin (on policy, May 27/28).  The desired effect of the focus is to take “European brain research to the next level”.

A recent meeting organised by the European Voice called “Rethinking Alzheimer’s: a new approach for better diagnosis” illustrated why that’s needed. Dementia expert Professor Bruno Dubois said of the disease “there is no treatment” and sufferers are currently being “treated with a drug not directed at the disease for which the drug is being given”.

Progress in identifying dementia biomarkers promises “real change” though, the neurologist said. He looked forward to medicine eventually being able to “improve the symptoms even though we don’t know the cause of the disease.”

While many longingly await such medical progress a recent study found more modest factors, such as gardening and prayer, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. And this is not the first research to suggest such links. “In 2005 researchers concluded that adopting a spiritual or religious lifestyle slows down the progress of Alzheimer’s.”

The tangible benefits of valuing things that bring meaning to life – whether it is a love of gardening or the love of God – are increasingly being recognised. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a resource list entitled “spirituality and dementia”.  And a recent event at Stirling University’s Dementia Services Development Centre explored “evidence suggesting spiritual care lies at the heart of providing person and relationship-centered care”.

A moving video at the conference showed an elderly man – unable to recognise his daughter – suddenly engage in conversation after being given loved music to listen to on an iPod.

Neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks MD said: ‘Henry, who is normally mute and unable to answer the simplest “yes” and “no” questions’ [becomes] quite voluble… so in some sense Henry is restored to himself, he has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music.”

Following other examples of the benefits of spiritual engagement with dementia sufferers the conference was given a poetic glimpse of how it feels to be a dementia sufferer, in the words of Barbara Noon:

Sometimes I picture myself as a candle.

I used to be a candle about eight feet tall – burning bright.

Now every day I lose a little bit of me.

Someday the candle will be very small,

But the flame will be just as bright.

The poem’s finale is a powerful plea to be regarded with unwavering respect. But it’s also an invitation to dig into the deeper question of what it is within us that would remain “as bright” if the “candle” of intellect and personality seems to melt away before our eyes.

Australian dementia sufferer Christine Bryden has done just that while chronicling her passage through the disease. The Christian former pharmaceutical worker, science publisher and civil servant talks of her dementia as “a spiritual journey towards the divine” and has said: “I believe I am much more than just my brain structure and function, which is declining daily. My creation in the divine image is as a soul capable of love, sacrifice, and hope, not as a perfect human being, in mind or body. I want you to relate to me in that way, seeing me as God sees me.”

To Bryden, that understanding has enabled “survival with dignity” –  she’s an inspiring example of that. Others have found that being seen “as God sees me” has even reversed their decline. One woman’s thought-provoking spiritual journey of discovering a diviner sense of her identity led to slowly regaining the cognitive functions she had been losing, until her doctor finally reversed the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The “European Month of the Brain” boasts a wonderful clarion call: “Open your mind!”

There are different ways to do that. While researchers seek drug-based solutions through understanding the brain, others see more hope in exploring the question of what constitutes consciousness. Is it solely a material process? Or is there something more profound – more divine – going on? While scientific studies can slowly research these questions many individuals are probing such issues daily through their individual spiritual practices.

With an ageing population and accelerating costs it makes sense to do so. Any avenue should be explored which might enable more of our elderly citizens to say: “Happiness is good health and a good memory”.


This was first published on The Independent as: Dementia Awareness Week: Should we keep an open mind to spiritual solutions?

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