We live longer than ever before. In many ways, this reflects progress, but there are situations where living longer doesn't necessarily mean living better.
Alzheimer's is just one of those situations.
According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer's Disease (named for the scientist who discovered the brain abnormalities in 1906) is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. For most people with Alzheimer's, symptoms first appear after age 60. It is believed that there may be as many as 5.1 million Americans who have this form of dementia.
People with Alzheimer's can live for many years with this disease and there are various levels of progression. Symptoms can be mild (some memory loss, getting lost, and trouble handling money), moderate (continued memory loss, confusion and trouble recognizing family members) to severe (unable to communicate, completely dependent on others).
The healthy spouses of those with Alzheimer's Disease are in a particular quandary. They are technically married, however the person they married is no longer "there" and in some cases, their spouse does not even know who they are. Taking care of a demented spouse can be much like taking care of a toddler because the person cannot be left alone or unattended and he or she cannot necessarily be reasoned with. It can be exhausting.
More and more, these healthy spouses are only too relieved to place their ill spouse in a care facility in order to get their spouse a better level of care as well as to get a respite from caretaking.
While these facilities help take care of one set of issues, the healthy spouse is then left at home alone and, in some cases, profoundly lonely.
For some, there is no question but that they are married, "for better or worse, in sickness and in health ‘til death do they part," and the answer is obvious that they will not seek out a new relationship.
For others, there is the belief that they are still young and healthy and, since their spouse doesn't recognize them anyhow, they should be able to date. They feel they are not hurting their spouse since he or she doesn't know the difference and they continue to visit so what is the harm?
AARP recently aired a show entitled, The Long Goodbye, about a man named Barry Peterson whose wife, Jan, had Alzheimer's. It was when Barry's mother-in-law (Jan's mother) encouraged Barry to move on with his life that, while shocking to him initially, was also a relief and got him thinking about opening the door to a new partner.
He started dating and soon met a woman named Mary Neil Wolff, who had been widowed and who understood the dilemma Barry was in. She accepted the circumstances and embraced the situation.
Barry and Mary call themselves a "family of three," and while Jan doesn't understand the new family configuration (nor did she consent to it) she is happy with their continued visits to her in the care facility.
Deciding whether or not to move on into a new relationship is an intensely personal decision and I believe that, the longer we live (it is predicted that Gen Xers will live an average of 100 years), the more we will have to come to terms with these types of dilemmas.
Another article on this subject: