Alzheimer’s, dementia, & the gospel


Question:  If I have family members with Alzheimer’s and dementia, how can I have hope that they could be saved if I have never heard a profession of faith from them? Should I still try to lead them to the Lord even if they don’t remember?

Answer: My very short answer to your question is “Yes!”

First, though, I want to encourage you in your role as a caregiver. You are seeking to honor your father and mother or, perhaps, a grandparent or aunt or uncle. It’s a difficult, yet ennobling kind of service that you are offering. As a caregiver for my 92-year-old mother who isn’t thinking as clearly as she used to think, I can empathize. I have struggled to find joy in my care-giving. I have written elsewhere about my journey toward joy: 10 Commandments to transform your care-giving from duty to delight.

Now, let’s again consider your question.   The gospel, as Romans 1:16 says, is the power of God for salvation. We do not know what kind of impact the sharing of the gospel will have on people who have either Alzheimer’s or dementia. But we do know this: it is the “power of God.” Since the gospel is the power of God, I believe it will do God’s powerful work in the lives of all who hear, even those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

As a minister of the gospel since 1979 (36 years!), I’ve visited hospitals and sick rooms where I found myself sharing the gospel in the hearing of non-responsive people. Why would I do that? I believe that the good news about Jesus is the power of God. And I believe it is not beyond the power of the gospel to save anyone anywhere anytime.

John 3:16 teaches us that God so loved the world that He sent His Son. The world includes people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, right? Jesus has come for them, too. This means that the gospel can be and must be proclaimed to them.    To be sure, Romans 10 has taught us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. “So, then,” you ask, “how could someone with dementia possibly call on the name of the Lord?”

Let me answer that question with a question, “How do we know that when he hears the gospel, the person suffering from dementia is not calling on the name of the Lord from his heart and in a way that is not intelligible to us?”

Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the Great Commission Baptist organization assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns), writes, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for those who would consider themselves to be ‘well-bodied.’ The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everybody.”  A professor at Baylor, Jason Whitt, wrote a paper entitled “Baptism and Profound Intellectual Disability.” He wrote about the profoundly mentally disabled: “There is a confidence that these children and adults are held firmly within God’s love… The default circumstance is that they will remain perpetually in a child-like position in the Church because of intellectual limitations.”

On Easter Sunday 2014, I had the precious privilege of baptizing Courteney Boyle, a little girl in our church with severe mental disability. Pastor Chad Allen gave a careful explanation to our congregation that I think is pertinent to this discussion. “Courtney may not have the ability to articulate or respond the way we are accustomed to seeing in those being baptized, but her parents, who are mature and faithful followers of Christ, have witnessed and perceived humble, simple, and observable evidences of spiritual sensitivity and a positive responsiveness to the things of Christ.”   As we consider whether to share the gospel with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, we would be wise to consider Chad’s words from that day. Just because Courteney could not respond in ways that we are accustomed to seeing did not mean that she was not responsive. And just because an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient does not respond in ways that we are accustomed to seeing does not mean that he or she is not responsive at all.

So, what is our responsibility to be missionaries to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia? We are to faithfully and lovingly proclaim the good news. We can use the 3 Circles: Life Conversation Guide with seemingly non-responsive people. I think it’s even permissible to guide them with a prayer of salvation even though they may not be able to repeat it. Then, as God dependent people, we simply leave the results to God.