Second Forgetting: A Book Review

Because I frequently write and speak on the subject of mental illness and the church’s mission, the publisher of Second Forgetting sent me a copy of this book when it was released, thinking I may want to read it and perhaps let others know about it. They were right.

To quote the book’s back cover, “Millions of Americans will spend much of their retirement either caring for a loved one who struggles with dementia or experiencing its effects on their lives firsthand.” Despite the statistics, very little has been written on this topic from the perspective of Christian theology and living. Dr. Benjamin Mast has combined this important discussion with a sound and soothing medical perspective that makes his words on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias realistic, poignant, and ultimately hopeful.

A book on Alzheimer’s disease will never be sanguine or jolly reading material–but neither is the experience of living with the effects of a disease that steals memory. Considered in light of the gospel of Jesus, this look at Alzheimer’s and dementia is more uplifing than you might imagine. As the author states, “This is a book about hope…I wrote this book for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and for their families, so that they might reconnect with the power and hope of the gospel” (p. 13). This is where true hope is found.

The book

Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease by Dr. Bejamin MastSecond Forgetting

(Published by Zondervan, 2014)

What this book offers

As a doctor of psychology and an expert in brain science and geriatric medicine, Dr. Mast is more than qualified to write an informative book on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, with helpful explanations of what happens to the brain when Alzheimer’s takes its toll and some helpful suggestions for living with the disease. He has done so in this book. But he has done much more in offering a discussion of Alzheimer’s within the context of the gospel. “Alzheimer’s strips away our worldly identity,” Mast writes, “but a person is valuable for who they are, not simply for what they can contribute. We are more than the sum of our memories. Even when we have nothing left to offer others, we still have value to God, and nothing can change that.” From my own experience in grappling to understand my mother’s life with schizophrenia, and from my conversations with many others, I know the questions about spirituality and personhood can be the most painful and important to people of faith who live with the effects of mental disorders–their own or those of loved ones.

This book helps build understanding of the disease itself, with accessible and practical information about brain changes, symptoms, and what people can expect with progression of the disease. It includes tips for prevention and planning ahead for the effects of the disease. Dr. Mast acknowledges the importance of memory, different kinds of memory, and what is lost when a person can’t remember. It includes a chapter about the challenges of giving care to someone with Alzheimer’s disease and another that discusses caregiving in light of the gospel. At the end of each chapter is a list of questions “for further reflection,” which could be used for personal consideration or group discussion. And through it all is woven the presence of the gospel and how God’s grace casts hope and redemption over the sorrows of forgetting and loss.

What I liked about this book

I really appreciate the author’s dual emphasis. This is both a practical resource and a spiritual touchstone. I also appreciate Dr. Mast’s obviously genuine care for people affected by Alzheimer’s disease–both those afflicted and their loved ones. The book contains a lot of stories about people going through various stages of the disease, and these stories are both difficult and encouraging. The book has a very realistic tone, not offering false hope or glib remarks to minimize the painful effects of memory loss. But it truly is full of hope–the kind of hope that surpasses our circumstances and capabilities and finds it footing in eternal reality. As the author writes, “Death is not the end. Yes, it brings an end to dementia and the battle with Alzheimer’s, and it also brings the promised end to our suffering. Because of Christ’s suffering and resurrection we are promised that our suffering will come to an end, and God will bring us into his presence where all things are made new…We may doubt and forget, but God has not forgotten us or his promises” (p. 167).

I also like the length and accessibility of this book. At 168 pages, it’s a manageable length for caregivers who lack the time (and perhaps emotional resources) for a longer read. It’s written in a conversational and compassionate style that will make it readable for someone living with the shock of a new diagnosis or the daily grief of ongoing care for a loved one.

What I would change about this book

The author briefly acknowledges questions about sin and salvation that may come with the progressive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: “One pastor who has worked with families caring for loved ones with dementia noted that problem behaviors would sometimes lead families and friends to question the faith of the person with dementia” (p. 67). Dr. Mast gives a helpful response to this issue, and I wish he would have provided a more thorough discussion of questions around accountability for behavior. For people who love someone with mental illness, this is a serious and persistent question: Is the person accountable for his or her behavior, or is it only the illness acting itself out? It can be difficult to know how to respond to problem behaviors and immoral actions, and a more thorough treatment of this question would be helpful.

Who should read it

I recommend this book to any Christian who has received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and certainly to any caregiver in the context of this kind of disease. This book may also be helpful for people caring for loved ones with other forms of serious mental illness because it offers such a helpful discussion of mental illness in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I also recommend it for church leaders who want a better understanding of the nature of Alzheimer’s and dementia and how the church can offer help.

© 2015 Amy Simpson.