'Imago Dei' in a Nursing Home
Imagine getting in your car to head to the grocery store and realizing that despite the countless times you've made the trip, you no longer know how to get there. Or picture this scenario: you're convinced you're living in your childhood home with your parents, only to have a stranger announce that this is actually an assisted-living facility, and your parents are long dead. Or worse yet, imagine having someone call you Mom and being certain you've never seen this person's face in your life.
This is the reality for more and more adults in the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services launched a new website, alzheimers.gov, in response to a skyrocketing number of older adults with symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. According to the most recent numbers, 35 million Americans now suffer from dementia, including approximately 5 million with Alzheimer's.
As medical advances and technology help us live longer, we as a culture—and specifically as Christians—are faced with increasingly complex end-of-life issues. Memory-related illnesses are among the most devastating—both for those with the diagnosis and for those who love them.
As people who champion the core value that human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), Christians have historically made a bold, if not always graceful, stance regarding beginning-of-life issues. The Christian pro-life message has its nuances depending on which niche group you talk to, but at its core, the stance is fairly straightforward: life begins at conception. Personhood is granted not through what babies contribute but through the inherent value bestowed on them by their Creator— Imago Dei.
But for the 35 million people who are gradually being stripped of their personhood one memory at a time, there doesn't seem to be much of a unified rallying cry. Most of us would give verbal assent to the idea that life ends at death, not before, and we shake our heads at European countries such as Switzerland, where physician-assisted suicide is legal and clinics enable those with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's to "die with dignity."
But in practice, does our own culture demonstrate a similar devaluing of personhood? Do our actions indicate that deep down we believe life is worth less when an older adult can no longer live independently or contribute to society? Do we consider people less valuable the day they can no longer feed and toilet themselves, the day they fail to recognize the face that stares blankly back at them in the mirror? How can someone have dignity if they don't even have a sense of their own identity?