Depression, Dementia, and Heavenly Relief

In the raw reality of dealing with depression and dementia, I don't see myself holding on, as much as I believe God is the One holding on to me.

But at some point, the rawness of awful things will impact us.  And we will need something we never could have conjured up for ourselves.  For example, even though he doesn’t realize it, Dad needs me today, just like I needed him over twenty years ago.  Far more than this, however, we both need the Lord.


Dad used to be deeply concerned about my mental health.

After I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1993, he’d send me letters of encouragement, with 3×5 cards on which he’d hand-written Bible verses pertaining to things like hope and endurance.

I’ve kept several of those 3×5 cards, along with one of his letters.  The letter is from August 1993, when he wrote that he believed I would be healed from my depression soon – with “soon” underlined.

Today, twenty one years later, I have yet to be healed from my depression.  And he can no longer remember that I have it.  He doesn’t remember attending therapy sessions with me, once he and my brother had driven up to New York to move me back to Texas.  Shucks, he doesn’t remember that I used to live in New York City, let alone that he used to mail me letters of encouragement.  Some of the time, he can’t remember who I am.

Yesterday afternoon, he thought I was the son of his childhood neighborhood’s ice cream man.

A couple of years after I moved back to Texas, Dad retired, and I was going nowhere fast with my therapy for depression.  Nevertheless, with Dad’s retirement, he and Mom began spending their summers in coastal Maine, away from the miserable heat here in Texas, and for days leading up to their departure, I’d become physically sick with separation anxiety.  I was supposed to be developing some semblance of maturity and personal responsibility by staying at my job, working, being somewhat independent, and coping on my own.  But it usually took most of the summer for me to calm down emotionally, and by that time, Mom and Dad had begun closing up the Maine house for the season in preparation for their return to Texas!

Dad no longer remembers Maine, or those cross-country trips, or the big riding lawnmower his former co-workers gave him the money to buy as a retirement present.  The property in Maine had quite a large lawn, complete with a bucolic, bubbling brook running alongside of it, but Dad has forgotten all of that.

Instead, nearly every evening these days, he asks to call his mother.  He can’t remember that she died in 1979, when she was in her 80’s.  In fact, she died 35 years ago this evening.  When Mom and I tell him of her passing, he becomes upset, both because he’s learning of his mother’s death as if for the first time, but also because he senses he should know that she’s dead.

He yells at Mom and me when we urge him to brush his teeth.  His dentist says he’s developed an infection in his gums from neglecting his oral hygiene.  If we didn’t urge him to brush his teeth, he’d completely forget to do it.  Now, Mom has him swish some Listerine in his mouth, and he complains of the pain it causes, yet he refuses to admit that better oral hygiene would fix the problem.  He can no longer draw the correlation between clean teeth and pain-free gums.

The other night, he awoke in a wild stupor, vehemently insisting on getting dressed and starting his day.  Even though it was 12:15 in the morning.  As mom’s voice rose in their bedroom while she confronted his irrationality, I woke up and went down the hall, walking into a bizarre tableau of his anger and accusations.  He yelled that we had kidnapped him and were holding him against his will.  When I began to pray out loud for the Lord to give us peace, he sneered at me.  Mom called my brother, who’s now in Michigan; yet Dad, unable to recognize his other son’s voice on the phone, accused him of being the mastermind of his abduction, and hung up on him.

Desperate, Mom asked Dad what it would take for him to calm down.  “Get me the police,” Dad thundered.  So Mom called 911.  Before it was all over, we had two cops, two ambulance EMTs, and several firemen in the house.  And Dad was reveling in the company, charming them with stories of Brooklyn, and showing them pictures he’d painted years ago.

He finally went to bed at 3:30 in the morning.  Didn’t remember a bit of it when he got up several hours later.  Mom and I are still trying to recover.

Back in the late 1970’s, Dad’s mother produced similar outbursts and crises during her struggle with what was then called “hardening of the arteries.”  Dad’s sister would call us from Brooklyn, at her wit’s end, hoping Dad could calm their mother down.  Today, Dad remembers none of that, even as he causes as much pain, despair, heartache, disruption, and anxiety as she did.

This won’t end well.  That’s part of what makes all of this so utterly sad.  Dementia has been called “the long good-bye,” and it is indeed that.  It is long, and it is good-bye.  Its victims don’t recover from it in this lifetime.  There is no antidote, no surgery, no treatment that can reverse it.  My grandmother ended up having a massive brain aneurysm while climbing a flight of stairs in her apartment building.  Their Brooklyn neighborhood then was so crime-ridden, it took almost half an hour before my aunt, frantically scanning a phone book in the days before 911, could find an ambulance company willing to enter it at night.  At least when Mom called the police early Monday morning, I could see emergency lights flashing through the curtains within moments.

Everybody says the same thing; Dad’s neurologist, their primary-care doctor, the police and EMTs the other night:  there’s not much we can do.  This is dementia.  This is elder care in the 21st Century.  It’s not even like Dad is the worst case out there.

Still, it’s so depressing.

We’ve known of Dad’s dementia for seven years, and we suspected something was wrong for several years before that.  Our faith tells us that we need to trust in God, and find peace through the power of His Holy Spirit.  And yes, some days, it’s easier to “be still, and know that God is God.”  On many other days, however, the darkness, the morbidity, the irrationality and nonsensical nature of dementia… the despair can be overwhelming.

I used to hear about other families and their struggles in caring for loved ones with dementia.  But I didn’t understand what they were going through.  I thought I had an understanding, but now that I’m in the thick of it myself, I realize that nothing else is like this.

Not that people who don’t have loved ones with dementia are wrong for trying to help and sympathize with those who do.

Plus, plenty of other people are dealing with plenty of other afflictions at least as bad as dementia, if not worse.

But I’m not looking for sympathy anyway.  I’m looking for relief.  Okay; I admit it: I’m no super-spiritual saint.  I am disappointed that Dad never saw the healing of my depression.  I’m disappointed for him, but also for myself.  I often wonder if I’d be dealing with our current crisis better if my own problems with depression had been alleviated beforehand.

Then, this morning, for the first time in years, I reached for the little dusty bundle of 3×5 cards that have remained, paper-clipped together, in a cubbyhole of my roll-top desk, above my computer keyboard.  And in my Dad’s handwriting, I see Psalm 40:1: “I waited patiently and expectantly for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry,” with “inclined” and “heard” underlined.

This is another one of those things that’s really all about depending on God, isn’t it?  We can’t make sense out of clinical depression, or of dementia.  Yet, does God expect us to?  Or does He invite us to wait patiently for Him to eventually defer to us and receive our request?  In His time frame; not ours?

In my narcissistic human mortality, I find little comfort in having to wait for God.  And I find zero comfort in my afflictions – afflictions which the Lord has allowed to begin with!  I dislike having anything imposed upon me.  And it sounds pretty haughty of God to say that He will “incline” to us.  So much of our hedonistic enculturation teaches us to make our own way, and solve our own problems.  Now!

Then again, of course, our culture doesn’t recognize that God is God, and we are not.  We forget that we don’t deserve any of the graces He bestows upon any of us.  Graces like having a mortal father who, when in his “rightful” mind, loved me, and desired to lead me in God’s truth.  Graces like salvation, and unlimited opportunities to communicate with my Heavenly Father about issues like depression and dementia.

Life has seemed dark to me for a long time, and particularly recently.  Yet I still wait for the Lord.  In a way, there’s not much else I can do, is there?  Many cynics would say that weak people like me simply need to hold on to something.  Desperate for peace, we hold on to God, or some other religious deity, or food, or money, or social status, or our job, or our family.

But I don’t see myself holding on, as much as I believe God is the One holding on to me.

Perhaps some personality types deal with these issues with less anxiety and gloom than I tend to.  But I’ve tried for decades to change my personality, and nothing seems to have worked.  Maybe if I’d gone to seminary, or memorized every verse in the Bible, or gotten married, or… done something else morally and mortally possible that could have benefited me in various ways, including putting some cushion between myself and my problems…

But at some point, the rawness of awful things will impact us.  And we will need something we never could have conjured up for ourselves.  For example, even though he doesn’t realize it, Dad needs me today, just like I needed him over twenty years ago.  Far more than this, however, we both need the Lord.

Have you ever considered the irony of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph all being afraid when God’s angels appeared to them in preparation for the nativity of the Christ child?  “Fear not!” each angel commanded them.

And what is my despair, but a fear of God not being as sovereign as He says He is?

Dear Lord, please help me not to fear, but to find relief in Your salvation!

Tim Laitinen attends Park Cities Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Dallas, Texas. This article is reprinted from his blog is and is used with permission.