Defending the Dignity of those with DementiaFATHER TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK
I once heard a remarkable story from a woman named Cecilia sitting next to me on a long flight.
Cecilia's story about her mother runs against a cultural tendency today, which is to dismiss those struggling with dementia as if they were no longer persons. These patients, however, clearly deserve much more from us than the kind of benign neglect (or worse) that they occasionally receive.
Many of us fear a diagnosis of dementia. We worry about "surrendering our core" or "losing our true self" to the disease. Many of us wonder how our loved ones would treat us under such circumstances.
Steven Sabat, writing in The Journal of Clinical Ethics, challenges the reduced expectations for quality care for those with dementia:
Sometimes we may view the situation more from our own vantage point, rather than the patient's. In a report on care for the elderly, physicians Bernard Lo and Laurie Dornbrand put it this way: "Family members and health professionals sometimes project their own feelings onto the patient. Life situations that would be intolerable to young healthy people may be [made] acceptable to older debilitated patients."
Sabat notes how this raises the prospect of reducing the patient to a kind of object:
The medical profession in particular faces a unique responsibility towards each individual with dementia, a duty to approach each life, especially in its most fragile (and uncooperative) moments, with compassion, patience and attention. When our ability to think rationally or choose freely becomes clouded or even eliminated by dementia, we still remain at root the kind of creature who is rational and free, and the bearer of inalienable human dignity. We never change from one kind of being into another. Parents who have children born with a serious birth defect or behavioral problem would never suggest that their defect or impediment transforms them into another kind of being, into an animal or a pet. It never renders them "subhuman," even though their behaviors, like those of advanced dementia patients, may at times be frustrating and very hard to bear. As Cecilia reminded me on the plane, "there's always someone in there."
Pope John Paul II in a beautiful passage from Evangelium Vitae (On the Gospel of Life) speaks of "the God of life, who has created every individual as a 'wonder.'" We are called to foster an outlook that "does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death's door." Those suffering from dementia challenge us in a particular way towards the beautiful, and at times heroic, response of love, "perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity."
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. "Defending the Dignity of those with Dementia." Making Sense Out of Bioethics (October, 2010).
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D. writes a monthly column, Making Sense Out of Bioethics, which appears in various diocesan newspapers across the country. This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has a long history of addressing ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. Established in 1972, the Center is engaged in education, research, consultation, and publishing to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person in health care and the life sciences. The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message derives from the official teaching of the Catholic Church: drawing on the unique Catholic moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.
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Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Yale University. Father Tad did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. He subsequently studied in Rome where he did advanced studies in theology and in bioethics. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2010 Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
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