A New Kind of Happy Ending

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

He became very sweet, this big man with a big ego who had been a noted architect; now he was smaller, childlike, and he'd follow my cousin around the house. She'd smile at him, and then he'd ask her, "Will you marry me?"

She would pat his cheek and reply: "Darling, we are married!" His face would light up. "We've been married 35 years," she'd say.

But the Alzheimer's disease had so progressed that he had no past, just the present -- and here was this pretty woman beside him. Three or four times a month, he would say, "Will you marry me? I think we should get married."

Where is the love when disease hijacks a person's mind and personality?

My cousin knows she was lucky. Her husband didn't become angry or violent. She was able to care for him at home until he died last month. Alzheimer's affects people differently, and families respond to it differently.

It's not easy, this letting go of someone you love and caring for that person at the same time. Illnesses that affect the brain -- strokes, dementias, mental disorders -- tear relationships apart.

But recently, Sandra Day O'Connor, who stepped down from the U.S. Supreme Court to care for her husband with Alzheimer's, set a high standard for selfless love in an age of dementia. Her husband, who lives in a long-term-care facility, has fallen in love with another woman. And the family is happy that he is happy. No heartbreak over finding lipstick on his collar. The heartbreak is over the disease.

Where is the love when the rules of marriage are overturned by illness? When betrayal is a medical symptom and kindness is encouraging extramarital liaisons? When the relationship is long gone, but the spouse is still flesh and blood?

This is the Alzheimer's conundrum. A rich portrait of such a marriage under siege is the brilliant movie "Away From Her," in which Fiona, played by Julie Christie, is losing her mind and forms an attachment with another man in the Alzheimer's facility where they live. Her husband, Grant, played by Gordon Pinsent, struggles with his memories, his guilt and his dependency, as he experiences the gradual loss of his wife.

Like Sandra Day O'Connor, he accepts his spouse's new relationship. Why? Because it will make her happy. As Peter Reed, a behavioral scientist in charge of programs at the Alzheimer's Association, points out: "Most relatives want their loved ones to be happy." Even when that happiness doesn't include them.

Families living in illness have a message for the rest of us who still live behind the protective wall of good health. It's about the primacy of love no matter what the capacity or circumstance.

"People do not lose their need for social connectedness. That may be a new friend, a new companion, a professional who is a care provider," Reed continues. "It doesn't go away."

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