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Till Alzheimer’s do us part?

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Column by David B. Whitlock

When I first heard the Rev. Pat Robertson’s comment, I thought of Ronald Reagan’s response to incumbent President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate, “There you go again.”  

“There you go again, Pat,” I thought. But Robertson wasn’t in a debate, he was responding to a caller on his television program, “The 700 Club.” This is not the first time Robertson’s statements have placed him in the center of controversy. In 2010, he blamed the earthquake in Haiti on a pact he said the Haitians made with the devil 200 years ago.

This time he was counseling a man wanting to know how to advise a friend whose wife was so deep into dementia that she no longer recognized him. The man’s wife as he once knew her was gone and now he was seeing another woman.

"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again -- but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson said.

But what about the vow, “til death do us part?”

Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death,” a “walking death,” according to him.

Robertson was overlooking the fact that while in many cases caregivers do form relationships with others, few seek to divorce their spouse, and in fact, Alzheimer’s frequently brings families closer together. Robertson was obviously thinking of the caregiver more than the patient.

Neurologist James E. Galvin, director of the dementia clinic of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, said in an interview with the New York Times that victims of this horrible disease still tend to recognize those people who have been closest to them. And Susan Galeas, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association of Southern California, observes that even as victims of the disease progress toward the end stage of the illness, they are still individuals nonetheless, benefitting from loving relationships, enjoying a rich history filled with personal experiences.

Robertson was clearly struggling with the issue. He advised his listener, “Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer, because I recognize the dilemma, and the last thing I would do is condemn you for taking that kind of action.”

Sept. 22 is World Alzheimer’s Day and Robertson’s comments, as misapplied as they may be, should push us to think about this issue.

Rather than simply pulling the, “Thou shall not divorce card,” and condemning everyone taking that route, perhaps we would do better to recall Jesus’ “new commandment,” the one about loving each other, the one that says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other” (John 13:34), and ask ourselves how love is expressed for both care givers and patients in the grip of this grim disease.

More of us will be facing this unfortunate dilemma. An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and with the number of baby boomers soon entering their senior years, that figure is bound to increase. Nearly half the people over the age of 85 already have Alzheimer’s. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

It has no known cause, no treatment and no cure.

My conversations with my Alzheimer’s friend move in the same circular fashion: Her mind malfunctions like a record hopelessly getting stuck in the same place, returning to the same beginning.

“Now who are you?” she asks for the third time in 10 minutes.  I remind her again; she answers the same: “Oh, yes, I know who you are.”

Her eyes fill with tears as she remembers her deceased husband’s love. And then having remembered him, she forgets him.

“How old am I?”

When I remind her, she frowns as she reflects, “I just didn’t know people lived that long. I can’t figure out why God let me live this long, too long.”

“The church, your church still loves you,” I say, trying to reassure her of her place with our community.

In an instant, her frown disappears; a smile spreads across her face as her eyes brighten.

“The church,” she says as if an old friend has walked into the room, “the church, I’ve always loved the church, I still love the church.”

Instead of thinking of reasons to go on without them, maybe we should look for reasons to go on with them. When all the memories have slipped away, the love of relationships remain. Even when the present is only a fuzzy haze, they still may feel love, a love as familiar as a well-worn glove, often tenderly received even when they can’t remember the face or the hands that share it.

David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is a Baptist minister and college instructor. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com