Faith, Identity and Dementia
Updated: May 28
What is my identity as a Christian who has dementia?
Through her research into the effects on faith of living with dementia, 'Tricia Williams explored how the ideas of losing one's identity and self have, as she says, 'become common assumptions as consequences of dementia'.
For Christians, another question follows: ‘What will happen to my faith, if I lose my “self”?’ Or, as Christine Bryden has queried, at what point on this journey do I cease to be me – and therefore, possibly, lose my relationship with God (Christine Bryden, and Elizabeth MacKinlay, Dementia: A Spiritual Journey towards the Divine: A personal view of dementia, Journal of Religious Gerontology, 13:3-4, 2003:71, dx.doi.org/10.1300/J078v13n03_05)? What is my identity as a Christian who has dementia? What is ‘saving’ faith for the Christian whose ‘brain falls apart’. Or, for any of us?'
Williams has worked for Scripture Union and was the founding editor of BRF's Bible Reflections for Older People. Her PhD research found that for many Christians living with dementia, their faith can still be profoundly articulated: 'Some spoke passionately about their continuing – even growing – faith and confidence in Christ (names given here are not their real names to protect anonymity). Here’s Alice: "…God is always with me… and I know that there’s nothing that can ever separate me from him… but now, even when my brain falls apart… it doesn’t matter."
'David, asked about feeling afraid in the light of his developing dementia, exclaimed: "Fear! There is no fear in Jesus!"
'And questions about dementia making you feel distant from God brought assertions of the opposite: "Closer," Rosemary exclaimed. Thinking of the future, Ron said confidently, "I know where I’m going… heaven… my God is… there." Trust and hope were interwoven in the words of each of the research participants’ responses. Such testimonies are courageous and moving. But how do these make sense in the light of experience and scripture?' she asks.
The conclusion she reaches is that 'our essential identity – who we are in Christ – is safe in him (for further discussion of this see John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time, SCM, 2017). As human beings, this illness will bring changes to how we express ourselves and our faith. But God’s love for us does not change. Witnessing the experience of those who live with dementia as fellow disciples of Christ teaches us a new awareness of our own sense of identity, frailty and the meaning of our faith. Humbly, we endeavour to learn from one another, seeing Christ himself in the lives of our "weakest" brothers and sisters.'
Find Williams's own summary of her PhD dissertation on this topic on the Faith in Later Life website.