Alzheimer's blog

Alzheimer's and marriage: Comments stir debate

By Angela Lunde October 4, 2011

Alzheimer's changes the person with the disease. And it changes our relationship to the person with the disease. Many of you have written about the isolation you feel, the sense of losing oneself and the ambiguous loss that's present on this journey.

By ambiguous loss, I'm referring to the difficulty and the anguish of still having the person with you physically, but feeling their psychological (emotional and cognitive) absence.

In a blog comment a couple weeks ago, Linda wrote, "It seems like he is slipping away from me every day. He likes to hug me — but I miss the way that we were so close..."

I have to believe those of you reading this care for your spouse with the love and dignity that Linda does, which further amplifies the pain of ambiguous loss. It's reasonable to imagine that what you grieve most may be the loss of the deep connectedness you once had with that person, and/or the loss of intimacy once shared. As humans, when we have meaningful emotional and physical connections we're healthier and our lives are more fulfilled.

So I pose the question, how does having Alzheimer's affect, or not affect, one's marriage vows?  Both Ginny and Gary offered their thoughts (on this blog) referencing television evangelist Pat Robertson's recent remarks on Alzheimer's and divorce. Let me ask, does one view marriage vows through a different lens in the presence of Alzheimer's? Or, does Alzheimer's underscore the depth and commitment of marriage vows?

As reported in the "New York Times" on Sept. 16, Robertson suggested that a man could divorce his wife with Alzheimer's once she no longer recognized him. Not surprisingly, his comments were controversial to say the least. Yet they do reflect the profound loss of connectedness that husbands, wives, and partners to someone with Alzheimer's feel.

In an AARP Bulletin ( article on Sept. 13, 2010, psychologist Dorree Lynn, author of "Sex for Grownups" said, "When the marriage dies long before your spouse does, the result is an avalanche of emotion that can leave a caregiver depressed, depleted and isolated. Reaching out to another person for comfort is the caregiver's way of choosing to live life."

Barry Petersen, a correspondent for CBS News, sees things similarly. He wrote a memoir, "Jan's Story," about his caregiving journey with his wife. The memoir tells of Petersen's decision to enter a relationship with another woman. Petersen explains that he and his lady friend are committed to each other and he acknowledges that she is a full partner in his role as caregiver to Jan. "I am satisfied with what I did. For me, just for me, it's what I needed to do," Petersen said.

But many see things differently. In her blog comment last month, Ginny wrote, "Do we divorce if a spouse gets cancer or other terminal illness?" She then refers to the book "A Promise Kept," by Robertson McQuilkin. McQuilkin resigned as president of a college to care for his wife until her death.

Ginny shared this: "... (a beautiful book) showing how weakness generates strength, servanthood births freedom, and joy is found in a promise kept." And Gary wrote, "Pat Robertson must have ... forgotten his Christian marriage vows — for better or for worse, sickness and health ... till death do us part ... selfish desire blinds us to the best way humanity can live."

Anyone married to someone with Alzheimer's will likely have a reaction to this subject. For me, I'm choosing not to weigh in. Not because I don't have an opinion, but because I'm a proponent of honoring choice. I can't cast stones at people who are doing the best they can or because their choices don't align with my worldview.

The only experience in this life any of us can know completely is our own. And with that truth, I may not always agree or even understand the choices caregivers make on this journey. I don't need to. And still I can choose to offer unconditional support.

"We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same." - Anne Frank

Oct. 04, 2011