4. To laugh or not to laugh

There is a time for everything .. A time to weep and a time to laugh … a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4a, 7b NIV).

As an Aged Care Chaplain, I have the privilege of leading Musical Reminiscence in the Hostel and Nursing Home and in a separate Dementia-specific Home. I use songs on CD (or on iPod) with accompanying song sheets.

In a normal sing-a-long we would simply sing. Because it is Musical Reminiscence we do much more. I talk about the songs, tell stories and jokes, ask questions, and keenly observe the residents. Whenever a resident reacts I affirm their contribution:  I address them by name and seek to explore that contribution. For example, one day I played a song by an American jazz singer. The Hostel resident asked me if had ever heard a particular song by the same singer. I hadn’t, but I found a YouTube version on my iPhone and played it through the sound system. She became very emotional, and with tears running down her face she told me that she used to sing the song to her baby son to lull him to sleep. She hadn’t heard it since – and her son was now 66 years old!

One day I was leading Musical Reminiscence with high care residents. As it was June in Australia I decided to sing songs related to the theme of “Winter”. We sang familiar songs like “Wouldn’t it be luverly” (My Fair Lady: “all I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air”) and “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music: “blossom of snow may you bloom and grow”). After one particular song “Judy” – a delightful and very verbal lady living with dementia – clapped her hands with great excitement. Her face was beaming. Without any hesitation she shouted out: “You have a lovely voice. I can see it coming out of your ears”.

Most of the residents laughed. One, a frail-aged resident with excellent cognition, shook his head and said loudly: “I thought I’d heard it all”. Judy looked around the room, no longer smiling, a puzzled look on her face. She looked at me and said “You do have a lovely voice”.

What was my reaction to Judy’s funny comment? Internally I laughed, because the visual image was truly funny. But over eight years I have learnt a better way. I smiled at her, nodding my head, and after her second comment simply said: “Thank you Judy. That means a lot to me”. She beamed – affirmed, valued, and heard.

Although Judy’s brain is damaged by dementia, her emotions are whole. She feels, as we all feel. I feel for her.

So, every day I try and heed the (misquoted) words of Shakespeare: “To laugh or not to laugh – that is the question”.

With blessings,

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3. ‘spirit talks to spirit’

”… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us …” (Romans 8:26).

I will never forget the day I visited an Irishman who I’ll call Patrick. Patrick could not converse, but he had been an English and History teacher and could recite over 25,000 lines of poetry. He used to correct volunteers when they misread poems!

I used to sing Irish songs with Patrick. He still had a good voice, and he loved the songs of his childhood and his youth: “Danny Boy”, “When Irish eyes are smiling”, “it’s a long way to Tipperary”, and others.

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One day I went to see Patrick. Our little cocker spaniel Pip had just been diagnosed with cancer so my heart was very heavy. I naturally didn’t tell Patrick what was going on. He could not have understood what I was saying. We sang a song or two, and then he looked at me and asked with true compassion: “How’s your little doggie?” I was shocked – and reduced to tears. How did Patrick know?

Because ‘spirit talks to spirit’. My troubled spirit was talking with Patrick’s spirit!

How? St. Paul tells us in Romans 8. God’s Holy Spirit helped me in my weakness by interceding through Patrick. God’s Holy Spirit connected with Patrick’s spirit. Patrick’s spirit, in a way that defies explanation, energized Patrick’s damaged brain, enabling Patrick to offer me God’s compassion and comfort. As it is sometimes said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform”.

As I’ve shared Patrick’s story over the years I find that other people’s spirits are touched. Perhaps it has touched your spirit? What’s happening? God is helping all of us in our weakness. And he is doing it through those whom we might least expect – those living with dementia!

With blessings,

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2. A crumb or a banquet?

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew 22:2

I vividly recall the morning when I was leading worship in a Nursing Home on the Central Coast. Towards the end of what was a lovely service – even if I do say so myself – one of the ladies who I didn’t know shouted out very angrily: “We don’t have Latin any more”. She, of course, was a Catholic who had been brought up with the Latin Mass. I was shocked but was led to make the sign of the cross and say: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti” (In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”). Her face lit up and her eyes well with tears. “Thank you, Father. That was a lovely Mass”.

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I gave this woman a bread crumb of the Latin Mass – a mere 8 words. For her it was the whole loaf of bread! Why? Because she had a need. I had a response that met her need. In that connection she – and I – were truly fed!

It’s like the parable that Jesus once said about crumbs falling from the Master’s table. A crumb from the Master’s table is a banquet. For both of us it was a banquet beyond measure.

With blessings,

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1. Don’t pass by!

Once upon a time … And they lived happily ever after”. Everyone loves a story. We learn them from childhood, and some people – like me – can’t help but collect them. I collect stories like people collect stamps. Like stamps, they stick! But there’s no point collecting stamps if no one sees them, or stories if no one hears (or reads) them. So, I decided to start this blog.

I have ten posts already written that could have been number 1. So why did I choose this story? Because as a story-teller I am in good company. Jesus was a story-teller. He told a special kind of story called a parable. The English Christian writer and comedian Adrian Plass says somewhere that:  “Parables are stories that keep you entertained on the front door step while the truth slips in by a side-window”. It’s a wonderful definition, because a parable is a story with a twist. It’s meant to challenge us. It’s meant to disturb us. It’s meant to change us – and change us for the better.

Blog U6 - The Parables - Inrig - coverIn 2016 I used Gary Inrig’s 1991 book “The Parables” in our Hostel Bible study. One of the twelve parables he includes is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Inrig discusses the parable using the letter “C”: Compassion, Care and Comfort, Commitment, Cost. It’s well-worth reading his book.

The parable (in Luke 10:25-29) is very well known. It begins like this:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he           asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’”.

 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

 That’s a great question. So how does Jesus answer it? With a story. Or, more particularly, with a parable: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. You can read this portion for yourself (Luke 10:30-35).

If Jesus walked into one of our Churches today and was asked that question, I wonder if He might respond like this:

One Sunday morning a man was going from his seat in church to morning tea, when he fell into the hands of the robber named dementia. It stripped him of his memory and stopped him in his tracks.

The Minister happened to be going to morning tea, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, an Elder, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But an old woman on a walking frame, as she shuffled slowly by, came to where the man was. And when she saw him, she had compassion on him. She went to him and bandaged his confusion, pouring on the oil and wine of her soft speech and her gentle touch. Then she put the man on her own frame, and took him to a nearby table. She took care of him: bringing him a cup of tea, and a biscuit, sitting alongside him, having a long conversation without any words.

Returning to the account in Luke’s gospel (10:36 ff.) we read:

Jesus asked: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?” The expert in the law replied: “The one who had mercy on him”. Jesus told him: “Go and do likewise”.

As a Chaplain who is called to be “a bearer of hope and joy” I do strive to be a good neighbour – or to quote the expert in the law “to show mercy”.

Being a neighbour to someone with dementia certainly definitely involves Inrig’s 5 “C’s”:  Compassion, Care and Comfort, Commitment, and Cost.

However, I would personally add three more (which I’ll expand in later posts):

Courage:             to journey with others in the land of dementia.

Cheerfulness:     to never lose your sense of humour.

Consistency:      to daily fulfil your high calling as a neighbour.

Being a neighbour definitely involves those 8 “C” words. All of them are Critical.

But look at the parable once more – Jesus’ original or my version. Read the parable carefully. What is the very first thing the Samaritan does? What’s the most Critical thing? Have you spotted it? Please don’t miss it!

In three words:              Don’t pass by!

That’s what the Samaritan did! That’s why he is commended as a model neighbour. He cared for the wounded man physically and emotionally. That’s easy to see in the story. Within residential Aged Care here in Australia we’re pretty good at caring for people with dementia physically, and we don’t do a bad job caring for them emotionally.

But the Samaritan also cared intellectually and spiritually. Firstly, he used his intellect to overcome the irrational and bitter hatred between Samaritans and Jews. We need to use our intellect to overcome the ignorance and stigma around dementia.

Secondly, the Samaritan cared spiritually, recognizing that the Jew was a man made in the image of God, just as he was. We need to care for the spirit, recognizing that a person living with dementia is also made in the image of God. Dementia may destroy their brain and their body, but take heart: the person’s spirit is whole and well and strong.

So what’s our call?                 Don’t pass by!

That’s how we can be a good neighbour. That’s how we can care for those living with dementia: physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

It is my hope and my prayer that this blog helps each of us to fulfil God’s high calling on each of our lives:

Don’t pass by!

With blessings,

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