Indirectly, the journey Benjamin Mast ’95 took to become an expert on Alzheimer’s began in a Calvin classroom.
Although a psychology major at Calvin, Mast was taking an interim class in writing short fiction. He liked to write, and he figured that improving his writing could only help in his future profession.
His class was interrupted by a knock on the door. The professor chatted with the guest and then waved Mast over to talk to the visitor in private outside the classroom door.
“I was told that my grandfather was missing,” said Mast. “He lived in Colorado and left his home the day before to drive to a nearby meeting and had not returned.”
Mast’s grandfather was eventually found—hundreds of miles away in a Kansas farmhouse. His memory was muddled; he had lost his sense of direction and time.
“After I graduated from Calvin, I worked in an Alzheimer’s day center and saw firsthand how microscopic changes in the brain changed everything for the person affected and for that family. I was interested in learning more and saw a great need.”
Mast focused on gerontology as he earned his graduate degree in clinical psychology at Wayne State University. He went on to do postgraduate work in dementia detection and late-life depression at the University of Washington and eventually joined the faculty at the University of Louisville. He’s a board-certified clinical psychologist, an associate professor
His studies at Calvin and involvement in his local congregation, Sojourn Community Church, have led him to explore the interplay of faith and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Two things stood out to me while spending time in clinical work with families. First, faith and theological questions such as ‘Will my loved one forget God and their faith?’ are quite common. Second, many church-going people felt as though their congregation wasn’t there for them after a diagnosis of dementia,” he said. “Pastors and congregations often don’t know how to step in and be of assistance.”
He’s written a book about Alzheimer’s and faith titled Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel during Alzheimer’s Disease, recently published by Zondervan. The book clearly describes the disease, raises faith-related questions and discusses ways for faith communities to be helpful.
The “second forgetting” that can come with Alzheimer’s is to forget God’s faithfulness, presence and promises. But even when we forget, God remembers and cares for the patient and the family. God never forgets.
“It is my hope that the book will be a starting point for the church, enabling them to recognize the great need and to journey with diagnosed individuals and their families,” he said.
Mast centers much attention on Alzheimer’s caregivers who not only “carry a heavy burden of the physical demands of care” but also experience “overwhelming fatigue and grief for losses that have already occurred and concern over what they expect to happen.”
“It all starts with presence,” said Mast. “If we stay present for the caregiver, showing interest and concern, we will better know their specific needs.”
There has been a lot of research work done on the prevention of Alzheimer’s, but there are no clear preventatives yet available.
“The best prevention strategies seem like common sense,” said Mast. “Heart health, for example, is also good brain health—exercise, no smoking, good diet.
“I’m interested in prevention projects, but my current vision is to see the church equipped to grasp this opportunity to care for people in this very vulnerable stage in their lives,” he said.