Alzheimer’s and Marriage

The media is buzzing about a statement from Pat Robertson in response to a woman’s question about advising a friend who has been seeing another woman since his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Robertson’s response was that the man should start over, divorce his wife, but make sure that she has adequate and appropriate care, and agreed that the Alzheimer’s patient is “gone” like a “walking death.” You can read about his statements and various reactions here.

The scientist in me prefers to write reports or something with references in an emotionally neutral tone. However, Alzheimer’s hits home as it does for many people, so in a departure from the norm, I wanted to share the testimony of a man at my church. This man and his wife were formerly missionaries and translators, and have four grown children. I met them when they were much older, and thought they were the most adorable couple. The wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the man and his wife went through the Alzheimer’s journey. With ailing health, himself, he assisted his wife as the Alzheimer’s fog slowly crept in. Eventually her health declined, and she recently passed away. The man, a master at languages, had this beautiful statement at her funeral, “The Lord had taken my most special friend.” He did not say this in anger, but in recognition that his wife was now with the Lord.

In regards to Robertson’s comments, a friend of mine, who lost a parent to Alzheimer’s, doesn’t call it “walking death,” he calls it the “long goodbye.”  I thought this statement better captures the complexity of emotions that we feel when a loved one goes through this journey.

And on a personal note, my grandmother recently passed away after dealing with Alzheimer’s for several years. She was most certainly NOT the walking dead, as my parents and aunts and uncles can tell you. Yes, her memories faded, but she was still a person.

One of the points that Mr. Robertson made was that we should not judge the decisions that a couple makes in this most difficult time. With any difficult or traumatic situation, I find it hard to pass judgment on couples because I don’t know their relationship; I don’t see inside their lives. However, I do admire certain couples, and personally I admire the man from my church for faithfully remaining by his wife’s side until her death. He truly exemplified Christ-like love and devotion, and while we must look upon God’s world as though through a glass darkly, we do catch glimpses of the beauty of God’s love for us through how we love each other. Another friend of mine in response to the question, “why doesn’t God take the suffering Alzheimer’s patient home, particularly if he is completely gone?” said that sometimes your ministry is not just to the person that you are caring for, but it is also for the people watching.

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Steve Phillips
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How we deal with those around us with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias reminds us that ethics is not just academic. I have also had personal experience with having family members with dementia. My grandmother’s dementia has left her unable to speak and many times it is hard to tell if she realizes who we are, but my parents spend time with her regularly helping her to feel loved. My wife’s mother’s dementia is progressing and my wife’s father who focused much of his attention on other people’s needs outside the home through much of his life now shows his… Read more »