Sunday, November 18, 2007

Love and Alzheimer's: How Do Couples Adapt?

An article in today's New York Times describes what could be either a tragic or a blessed aspect of the ravages of Alzheimer's. As the disease erases memory, patients who have been with their partner for years often stop recognizing him/her. For the well partner, this is perhaps the most traumatic aspect of Alzheimer's. Your partner is your mirror, reflecting back to you the shared memories of childbirths, of Hawaiian sunsets, of narrow escapes, of terrible disappointments, and of the thousands of spots of intimacy that dotted your lives together. When your partner forgets you, this mirror shatters, and you have to grow a new sense of self.

The article goes on to say that sometimes the well partner must watch the partner with Alzheimer's fall in love with someone entirely new -- someone who plays a role more associated with his/her current existence. The husband
(who suffers from Alzheimer's) of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found companionship with a woman in the nursing home in which he lives. For the patient, this new relationship, often with someone with similar cognitive impairment, is a blessing. This new person fits entirely in the patient's present -- no straining to remember what has been erased; no trying to please someone who is now a stranger. The patient can find a reflection of his/her current identity in the eyes of the new companion -- a reflection that asks no hard questions and accepts what is -- a hand to hold, a smile, a body to lean against.

For the well partner, Alzheimer's paves a path of chronic grief, spread out over years. Yes, along the way, there can be appreciation, love, even new forms of innocence and sweetness. I think it must be both a blow and a relief to see the beloved who has forgotten you finding comfort with someone new.

What do you think?

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