Catholic values can help with Alzheimer's, says Dr. Bill Sullivan

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  • December 2, 2010
Dr. Bill SullivanTORONTO - For people struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease, the experience can be painful, bewildering and frightening.

But the journey can also be one filled with hope when we apply Catholic values like the inherent human dignity of all and justice for the most vulnerable, said leading Catholic bioethicist Dr. Bill Sullivan at the annual Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute lecture on Nov. 24.

More than 100 people came to hear Sullivan deliver his talk “Ethical and Loving Care of Persons Living with Progressive Cognitive Impairments and Their Families.” The lecture took place at the University of St. Michael’s College.


Individuals coping with Alzheimer’s “continue to have dignity and worth,” said Sullivan, director of the International Association of Catholic Bioethicists and founding director of the CCBI.

“Life with progressive cognitive impairment is a life that is changed but not ended.”

Coping with cognitive impairment is becoming a growing concern worldwide. There are about 17- to 25-million people affected, mostly elderly. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, there are about 500,000 Canadians diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another progressive cognitive impairment, with more than 100,000 newly diagnosed cases per year. Two years ago, the annual cost of care was estimated at $15 billion in Canada. By 2038, it could more than triple to $52 billion.

Individuals and their caregivers can struggle with finding meaning and hope in caregiving, forgiveness, “praying to die well” and “dealing with God’s apparent ‘silence.’ ”

What’s often missing in the conversation though, is the spiritual dimension, Sullivan said. Through a Catholic lens, one sees fundamental principles in treating individuals with Alzheimer’s in the virtues of faith, hope and charity: the belief in human dignity, the unity of mind and body and “self-giving love.”

The experience also has allusions to the cross and the Christian idea of suffering in that “we could bring a sense of victory over (Alzheimer’s) with love,” Sullivan said.

“We have a duty to take care of the lives of people with progressive cognitive impairment and prevent diseases,” he said.

At the core of the issue, he said, is the “intrinsic dignity and identity of human beings.”

Sullivan suggested the practice of person-centred care and avoiding language or behaviour that devalues and stigmatizes people.

“They should never be made to feel like a burden to anyone or have a ‘duty to die,’ ” he said.

On the policy level, “allocating health resources to focus exclusively on efficiency, maximizing profit and utilitarian ethics is wrong.”

For Ukrainian Catholic Deacon Paul del Junco, the issue hits home. Three years ago, del Junco and his four siblings made the difficult decision to place their 81-year-old mother in a nursing home because she needed 24-hour care. He said families who are caring for an elderly parent need support.

Other audience members also shared their challenges of caring for relatives who sometimes feel that life is not “worthwhile.”

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