Dementia in the Trans-Physical Age

My dad can’t remember my name any more. It’s unspeakably sad, not least because he is only in his mid-sixties. He knows he likes me, and even trusts me, but he’s not sure why. He often affirms that I’m ‘a good man’ and I respond by telling him that I love him, but that only elicits a confused look which seems to ask, Why?

While my dad is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, the sad fact is that dementia is going to affect most of us in some way. A third of people born this year will develop dementia at some point in their lives, and even if you escape this curse many of the people you love will be afflicted by it.

From my earliest memories my dad has been the hero of my life and a constant inspiration. His vast reading, his deep convictions, his grit and indefatigable approach to the challenges of life have all left their mark. I have always loved the way he loved me, my brothers, my mum. There were many shortfalls, but he has been a good dad, even a great one. Now it feels like he is slipping away.

Reflecting on the destructive effects of dementia raises a huge question: Where does the real you reside?

And what is left? A face I love. Eyes that are kind and strangely understanding. Crooked teeth like tombstones. And a body that is slowly but surely failing. Yet this body is still my dad, and so we care for him and seek to offer him the dignity and honour he deserves. 

Reflecting on the destructive effects of dementia raises a huge question: Where does the real you reside? We live in the Trans-Physical Age in which we view our bodies as plastic, moldable, even disposable containers in which our true selves live. If you feel that your body is an inaccurate portrayal of the real you, you are free to change it. Perhaps the real you is younger, a different race, or a different gender. And so, like choosing a more suitable outfit for an occasion, we paint, cut and carve our bodies to better reflect the person we feel we are inside. And when the body eventually fails, one of the greatest hopes that is beginning to emerge is the idea that you could upload that true self into some more durable hardware than disease-ridden meat. Your consciousness may be transferred to a computer and so the real you can outlive this rotting biological waste. [1]

All of these movements I am describing are captured by the ‘trans’ prefix. It means across or beyond. And I have no doubt that what we have seen so far is just the beginning. There will be an ever-expanding array of alternative trans identities and options which reflect a common theme of body denial. The point is that in this word ‘trans’ we are seeking to bypass and alter our bodies, as though they do not matter to our sense of self or they must be adjusted to better reflect who we are. All of this is underpinned by a conviction that the real you is somewhere inside, rather than the imperfect container you’re in.

Face to face with my dad, I’m very aware that there are no simple answers to the questions I’m raising here. On the one hand, it does feel as though he is slipping away as one neurone after another fails to fire, and everything that was familiar or automatic to him becomes strange and out of reach. At what point is he no longer my dad? How many memories does he have to lose before the body that resembles who he was becomes an empty shell? But I can’t think that way. No matter how bad things are going to get, he’s still my dad standing right there in front of me. That body is a body I love because it is him, and so it cannot be discarded or neglected or ignored.

It was the Ancient Greeks who first taught us to despise our bodies. The philosophical underpinnings of our modern attitudes to the body seem to have stemmed from the teachings of Plato, in which the spiritual realm of the Ideals was elevated above the grime of the material. The body was seen as something to escape, a mere vessel. This goes some way to explaining why the Greeks thought of work with the mind as so much superior to work with the body. We agree with this whenever we talk of blue collars and white collars, showing just how deeply this Greek way of thinking is embedded in our world, elevating one thing above another.

But Christianity broke into the Greek world with an altogether more complex, more subtle, and more hopeful view of things. Yes, the body is broken, and you have a spirit that will live on beyond death, but the aim is not to be separated from the body and enter some ethereal version of the afterlife in which you will float around for all eternity. This notion was killed when Jesus came back to life in a body that was both like and unlike his old one. It still bore the scars of his crucifixion as he ate barbecued fish with his friends. But he also looked different and seemed less constrained by the laws of nature. His body was physical, but somehow better and improved.

This means that when I look at my dad I feel sadness and hope at the same time. Perhaps parts of him are disappearing, like a photo bleached and faded by years of exposure to the sun. But since I am certain that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead—a certainty I derive from the testimony of the eyewitnesses who were frequently put to death for this claim—so I am deeply confident that my dad will be reunited with a better body one day. That will be the reward of his faith in Jesus, the ‘firstborn from among the dead’. Dad’s future body will have all the same parts, being both familiar and strangely unfamiliar at the same time. It will also be an improved and perfected body.

A vision of the future as something embodied—with hair and sweat and feasting, and with spit flying out of your mouth as you laugh at a friend’s jokes—this is at the heart of the Christian hope of eternity. That is why we treasure and honour the body, even that of a dying person. ‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1).

[1] This growing movement is called Transhumanism.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Andrew Haslam

Andrew Haslam
Andrew is a church leader with a wife and three kids. He is a walking cliché in his enthusiasm for coffee and craft beer.

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