By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
Physician-author Dr. David Perlmutter, though viewed by many as controversial, elicited little dissent when he wrote: “Dementia is our most-feared illness, more than heart disease or cancer.”
Dementia involves the gradual impairment of cognitive ability, memory loss, and personality changes. Those struggling with chronic dementia may not recognize loved ones, nor recall major life events: marriages, births, deaths. They may lose orientation in time, thinking themselves in a defining, distant past. Dementia is painful and challenging not only for the individual experiencing the condition, but for family members and care-givers as well: they grieve a series of losses while their afflicted loved one is still very much alive.
Millennia ago, my Talmudic namesake, Rabbi Joseph, spoke to the abiding honor due, and the dignity inherent in those burdened by dementia: “The tablets of the Ten Commandments, along with the shattered fragments of the original tablets, were placed together in the Ark of the Covenant… to teach that we must revere a scholar who has forgotten his learning” (Menachot 99A).
Action heroes of film and fiction may search for the lost Ark of the Covenant. Real heroes honor the sanctity of those whose cognitive abilities have been shattered by dementia.
May skilled healers and advancing medicine render this “most-feared illness” nothing more than a bad memory.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)