Ian Botham, dementia and the hope of a better future

Ian Botham has a legendary status in my sporting hall of fame. I can still see him smashing the cricket ball to the boundaries back in 1981 when he was the most influential player in the England squad that won the Ashes back from the Aussies. Few cricket fans can forget his imperious play at Headingly when he took six first-innings wickets, scored a half-century in England's initial and feeble total of 174, and then scored 149 not out. It was the stuff of legend, and it meant that the Test series was nicknamed Botham's Ashes.

But a recent newspaper interview put a different spin on him for me. Botham, known as much for his straight talking as his swing bowling, spoke candidly about how he coped with his father's death.

'I didn't see my father for the last six months of his life. He had dementia, which is the most horrendous disease. He couldn't remember anything by the end. He had to be sedated to be showered. He just shuffled around and had no idea who anybody was.

'I didn't want to remember him that way, and he didn't know who I was anyway. There was nothing I could do for him. He was just a shuffling shell. I blotted that out, I didn't want to see it. And I stand by what I did. I don't regret a thing. When I gave the eulogy at his funeral, I was able to remember him the way I wanted to, as the great father that he was.'

How any individual deals with the deteriorating health of a loved one is in one sense completely down to them. I can only imagine what it would be like to be faced with the distress of watching the cruelty of dementia set in. It was bad enough visiting my mother as she was dying of cancer, but at least she recognised me to the end even when her other faculties had been robbed from her. My neighbour, on the other hand, does not recognise her own husband, or remember the conversation she had with him two minutes earlier.


Similarly I remember the heartache visiting my wife's grandfather, a man who had spent his life running a home for children growing up in care, and was reduced to pouring tea on his cornflakes, thinking documentaries about space travel were science fiction, and asking over and again to see his brother and wife who had both died decades earlier.

I don't know the full extent of the Botham family situation, or if there were extenuating circumstances behind his remarks, but because of the legendary status he had had in my childhood, his decision not to visit his father in his dying months surprised me. Is a relative no longer a relative if their character changes beyond recognition? Is it more important to protect a memory of the loved one, than to protect the one who is dying? What are the Christian principles that should be taken into consideration for those members of our congregations who are either suffering from dementia, or caring for someone suffering from dementia?

I can't remember the last time I heard a sermon at church about the realities of caring for elderly relatives. We are often quick to help families with young children but increasingly in a bid to 'grow younger' churches we employ younger leaders and aim our services at the needs of young people. Pretty soon the needs of young families can become the focal point of church. Indeed when we talk about multi-generational church it is often implied that we are talking about including children into the life of the church or transitioning teens into 'adult church'. But how do we help equip those older members of the congregation caring for their even older relatives? What does it mean to parent our parents perhaps after our own children have left home?

I was really impressed by a Christian-run elderly care centre in Romania, where the vision was to care for the elderly with great grace and dignity, while offering the grown-up children of the elderly assistance, generosity and grace. The director of the centre told me that over the years the help they had offered to residents' families had meant that many of them had come to faith.

I wonder, if Ian Botham had been given a warm, loving welcome by his father's carers, particularly when his father was incapable of offering that, whether his story would have ended differently. If he had been shown a way of grace and hope in the face of mortality, whether he could have found faith. Perhaps grace means allowing relatives to step back from their loved ones without feeling guilt. But perhaps grace means encouraging relatives to grieve as they also give. Perhaps grace means enabling the relatives to stay faithful, even when they get nothing in return.

Increasingly our culture seems to be treating the elderly and the vulnerable as an inconvenience, as a burden on society's meagre economic resources, as a group of people to be neither seen or heard. Sometimes the Church has colluded with this approach. The Bible teaches us not only the intrinsic value of all people, and Jesus' particular care for the vulnerable, but also stipulates that we treat those older than us with dignity and respect. And there is a particularly strong stipulation in 1 Timothy 5:8 that states: 'Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.'

The sacred bonds of family are not dissolved by our Christian service in church, or the business of our lives in the world. We have a responsibility to personally make sure that we care for those who rely on us. It is so serious that Paul questions our claim to faith if this is not a part of our lives.

Many of my friends have explained that they have found their care for elderly relatives both incredibly demanding and incredibly rewarding. They have often also discovered that in showing compassion to those in need they have discovered a new depth of relationship both with God and their most vulnerable relatives.

Many who care for the elderly get very little recognition in our churches. They often do so at great personal cost and with no great fanfare. How can we give not only dignity to those dying, but also to these great role models? How can we give them both practical support and cheer them on in their devotion and honour them so they can keep going to the very bitter end? How can we give them a voice?

My friend David McCarthy from Edinburgh told me: 'I was in hospital today visiting my dad who has a chest infection. He has dementia and my mum is wrestling with the possibility that she can no longer cope with him at home. She is heartbroken. We visit and have watched him slowly disappearing, both mentally and physically. He has been the most wonderful dad. Last week he said that he was going to see Tottenham play Chelsea with his dad. He is 85 years old. Today he told us he doesn't drink alcohol and hasn't done since 1925 (do the maths). He makes us smile. So we want our old dad back? Of course we do. But we love dad as he is now, not just as he was, and when those flashes of his history come through, we smile and laugh with him. Such is love.'

Another person told me: 'I looked after my aunt in the last few years of her life as she suffered from serious dementia. I will always remember her at her best, as she was when she was younger, but know she needed me to keep spending time with her even when she couldn't remember who I was. Even if it only gave her momentary pleasure that someone still cared, it was worth it. It cost a lot in terms of time and was an enormous emotional commitment, but it wasn't really about my needs, it was about hers and in my view, her needs were far greater.'

One of the hardest things in life is to watch someone we love deteriorate before our eyes. As we see the person we knew and loved become someone very different, there is a sense of great loss and bereavement. For some people, Ian Botham's words will ring true –the sense of loss is too great to cope with. But when Christians care for the elderly, we do so in the firm hope that we will meet the person we have lost again. We believe in the resurrection, and that body – and mind – will be fully restored. We nurse in the hope not just of momentary flashes of recognition or clarity but in the strong conviction that because Jesus rose from the dead, those that have trusted in him will be raised again too. To a society that has lot so much of its hope, care for the elderly is an opportunity to demonstrate in a concrete way our hope in the resurrection of the dead.

For Botham, his only hope was in protecting his own memory of his father. But I'm wondering if this is the path the Alzheimer's Society recommend, when it comes to responding to those suffering in our families, or to those 800,000 people in our society with dementia. Should we shut them out of our lives because they make us feel bad? Or they don't measure up to a past ideal? Or to save ourselves the real and absolute heartbreak of seeing the people we love deteriorate in their health? Is this really the position that is being espoused, as their major spokesperson suggests in this public interview?

To be honest, I am very tempted to block Ian Botham's interview out of my head, preferring to remember him only as an imperious batsman, and childhood sports hero. But I think we need to face up to his comments and challenges as well as his achievements, and also to ask ourselves how far we are prepared to go when it comes to getting our hands dirty and our hearts broken for the sake of the vulnerable around us.

The charity Livabilty has produced this very helpful guide to help churches to become dementia friendly. http://www.livability.org.uk/livability-and-the-alzheimers-society-publish-new-guidelines/

Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. He writes and consults widely. Follow him on Twitter @krishk