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Thief with a Key: On Dementia

The thief does not need a key. The thief does not show up on cameras because it is already inside of her. 

I have a friend with severe dementia. Today she left her home to go to a safer place to live. My friend is paranoid. She thinks a thief is going into her apartment whenever she goes out. She counts her eggs, numbering them on the egg carton. Every time she goes out, she sees fewer eggs on her return. She flies into a panic, taking her egg carton to the building manager, pointing at the numbers, saying there are fewer eggs than before she went out. She wants something to be done. She wants the thief caught and brought to justice. She put extra locks on her door and she has installed cameras and motion detectors. The door is never broken. No one is ever detected by the cameras and motion detectors. She says she wants to know who the thief is. I reply that it is someone who has a key and does not show up on cameras.

She is fixated on her eggs. While other items seem to disappear, it is mostly her food, her milk and eggs that go missing. In vain, she hides some items behind her couch, under her bed, hoping to fool the thief. She puts a lock on her freezer and stores all kinds of things in there. But the thief is not fooled, and things keep vanishing into thin air, and no one shows up on her video camera. She says the camera is faulty and accuses her neighbors of making keys for her door. Milk and eggs keep vanishing.

I know who the thief is but she would not understand. The thief does not need a key. The thief does not show up on cameras because it is already inside of her. The thief is dementia, slowly stealing her mind and her personality from her. Each day she becomes less. It is bitter irony that she is fixated on eggs and milk. Eggs and milk are symbols of life, of what sustains us, what keeps us alive. This thief is taking her life away from her bit by bit, one piece at a time. She knows something terrible is happening to her but she does not understand what. Each day the thief takes a part of her brain, replacing it with tangles and knots of useless tissue. She will never catch the thief. It is already a part of her.

Today she left us. Her family came and took her away, to a new place, somewhere safer. She had begun to wander, lose perception of time, lose her judgement. She would go for walks in violent snowstorms, unaware of the danger to her. She would get lost in department stores, looking for her daughter who was standing next to her. She would get wilfull, agitated, angry, rude. As one friend put it: “the filter is gone.”

I am sad. I am in mourning. Though her body is still intact, her mind is dying a slow and agonizing death, being stolen by the thief dementia. Though she is still alive, the person I knew is gone. I want to cry and scream for her. I want to say Kaddish for every stolen brain cell. Instead I pray for her. Today I wrote this prayer for her and for any person with dementia, as I said goodbye to her. 


Dementia comes

like a thief in the night,

then stays,

a dark shadow,


entwining itself within the brain.


Healing Presence,

do not abandon [name of person]

in her time of need

and great distress,

in this time of transition.

Enfold her and her family

and all those who care for her

under the wings of Shekinah,

Bless them with peace, tranquility, calm

in the midst of the whirlwind

of this terrible illness.


Healing Presence,

grant strength, patience, and wisdom

to all those who care for her

and for all those who suffer with dementia.


Healing Presence,

grant strength, wisdom, and perseverance

to the scientists who work tirelessly

to untangle the web of this disease,

to catch this thief that comes in the night

and takes the mind and spirit.


Healing Presence,

while there is no cure,

grant us hope

and healing —

hope and healing for acceptance

of what cannot be changed,

hope and healing for strength

for what lies ahead,

hope and healing

for wholeness, shalom.


This poem can be found at Ritualwell.

Ariel Neshama Lee is a Jewish poet and composer of innovative prayers and rituals. Her life work has been in the fields of law and health care. She holds Baccalaureate degrees in biology, nursing and law and a graduate degree in medical law and bioethics (Canadian Master of Laws equivalent to American Doctor of Jurisprudence). Her graduate thesis is on the topic of advance health care directives. She incorporates the themes of healing, women's rights, and personal empowerment in much of her writing. She also writes midrashic meditations rooted in passages from the Tanakh.  

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