Fully Known – A reflection on dementia in the age of knowledge

My Nan and dementia

Late last year, my Nan passed away.

She was the last of my grandparents to go. First, her husband some 12 years previous, who was taken rather suddenly with pneumonia. Over the ensuing years my maternal grandparents both went by heart attack – my Grandad on the golf course; my Gran at home with my Mum.

My Dad’s Mum – Nanny, we called her – was the only one to deteriorate over a long time, it’s sad to say. For a number of years before her passing she gradually faded from view while yet remaining in a body that wouldn’t just take her away; mind shuffled off before mortal coil; memories disintegrating like ash; the high resolution of youth pixelating into blocks, faces unrecognised, names unknown.

I’m also sad to say that during this time I knew her little; though she was my Nan, for family reasons we found it very hard to connect with my Dad’s side of the family at that time; I really only saw her in the early stages of this onset of dementia, then for one final time the night before she died.

I regret this, of course; I did at the time, and do more so now, because I realise I denied her something most precious in an age that puts such a premium on knowledge: the gift of being known.

The age of knowledge

With the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, it would hardly seem necessary for me to make an argument to attempt to convince you that we live in the age of knowledge.

Society rewards the educated. News outlets trumpet the facts. Gossip columnists – or gossiping friends – especially want you to be ‘in the know’ just as they are. Ignorance is lambasted.

And it was at my Nan’s funeral that I began thinking: are dementia sufferers the more lamented in this age because of the premium placed upon knowledge? Is the pain we feel at watching someone suffer the effects of dementia the more acute because they are losing precisely what this society calls most precious?

I don’t for a minute want to suggest that dementia isn’t horrible both for the sufferer and for the carers. I also don’t want to pretend a more intimate experience of it, given as I have confessed, my lack of visits to my Nan during her decline. Rather what it got me thinking about was something else – something this society doesn’t value so much, yet could be so valuable in the situation of dementia sufferers and their carers, and many other situations besides: the gift of being known. Fully known.

Fully Known

‘Now we know in part,’ says Paul in what is often not a funerary but a wedding passage on, appropriately, love. Perhaps Paul is deftly reminding the 21st Century that to some degree, we all have dementia. Or amnesia. Or Alzheimers’. Or short-term memory loss. Etcetera.

Of course, knowledge of various kinds has always had a high premium – ever since Adam and Eve were tempted to eat of the very tree promising ‘knowledge’, and Paul and his fellow apostles had to undo heresies espoused by the ‘gnostics’ – those with a secret knowledge.

Well, to the age of knowledge, Paul speaks wisdom that reminds us that we don’t know everything; how much more do we really know than the dementia sufferer, compared with all the possible knowledge in the universe? The difference between the sufferer and me becomes nil.

‘Now we know in part,’ says Paul. ‘Then, I shall know fully, just as I am fully known.’ While a real depth of knowledge is reserved for a future day, Paul acknowledges that what is presently real is that he is – and we are – fully known. Fully known, presumably first and foremost, by God. He may have been drawing on David’s words in Psalm 139: ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . you are intimately acquainted with all my ways . . . you know it all . . . such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is too high; I cannot attain to it!’ What is it like, in the age of knowledge, to abandon our false pretences that we are really ‘in the know’ and to consider, realise and experience the fact of being fully known?

I suspect that we find the answer in love – Paul’s subject in the famous chapter, and other parts of the letter it comes from, besides. It comes out earlier in the letter when Paul takes up one particular issue that was facing the church:

Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.  If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

1 Cor 8:1–3 (NASB, emphasis mine)

He goes on to outline an argument based not upon laws or rights (both of which are prime manifestations of the culture’s knowledge base) but upon love. And love is something exercised towards another; it happens in relationship; involves knowing someone, i.e., giving them the gift of being known.

Living with dementia is hard, whether a sufferer or carer. But I would suggest that one way we can help ourselves if we are a carer in such a situation, is to remember that to some degree, we all have dementia, and that while society puts a high premium on knowledge, there’s nothing can beat the free gift of being known; of sitting with someone simply to be beside them; of showing love whether it is visibly received or not; of sharing humanity as God did with us when he abandoned the sum total of all knowledge in the universe and took on the same limitations we all face.

I regret my failures in this regard. My small part was played in being gathered around my Nan’s sickbed towards the end with my dad, my sister and uncle, plus my dad’s and my uncle’s wives. I honour especially my Dad and uncle for having played a greater part in those last years, of making her fully known, even if she didn’t know. We don’t know what effect that might have had.

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