The saddest part about Alzheimer’s is that you have to deal with losing your affected loved one twice. You expect to lose them to death eventually, but you don’t expect to lose them years before that to a loss of memory and even a personality change.
Husbands and wives of dementia patients suffer enough watching their spouses forget their faces, their names, their past lives together. So it’s a downright tragedy when they also have to watch their affected loved ones fall in love with someone else. But, sadly, these new relationships are not uncommon, particularly after the Alzheimer’s patient has been admitted to a nursing home.
And often, no one does anything to stop it. One reason is that fighting it simply doesn’t help. Dr. Richard Powers, chairman of the medical advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America explains another reason:
It’s not uncommon at all for families and spouses to allow this to go on, because it sustains a person’s happiness. Those of us who have had this disease in our families know you just have to roll with these changes. Let them have a friend, if it buys them a day of happiness.
It hurts to hear a person babbling about their new companions like lovestruck teenagers, to see such indifference shown toward a spouse they may have had for 50 or 60 years. However, a little compassion and empathy can go a long way to heal this hurt. Dr. Powers gives us some insight into why this behavior might be excusable.
Imagine if all the people you know and loved disappeared. Wouldn’t you want to find someone who was your friend, who would hold your hand and watch old television shows with you? The person with Alzheimer’s still searches for joy.
Some families, thankfully, are learning to see the bright side in this dark situation. If someone else is able to bring extra comfort and contentedness into the life of an Alzheimer’s patient, they consider themselves blessed to have found someone who can do more than they can.
It helps to remember that this issue is caused by a disease, not by a choice your loved one made. It is not the patient’s fault. Keep in mind, too, that there is a difference between companionship and real love. “Falling in love requires memory, communication, reason, decision making,” says Dr. Powers. “And Alzheimer’s patients no longer have many of these capabilities.”
It’s also good to know you’re not alone in this. Many families are experiencing the same thing you are with their aging spouses, parents, or grandparents. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was even in the news a few years back when her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband found a new companion. Her son reported that she was “thrilled” he had found some happiness after everything the disease had taken from them.
We understand that it isn’t easy to find happiness in this experience right away. There will be a grieving process. You will miss the personality of the person you once knew and have to take some time to get to know this new person. If your loved one doesn’t recognize you anymore, you’ll probably feel rejected and lost. But we urge you to look for joy in the fact that your loved one has found some relief from his or her suffering. And if you want to know more about why facial recognition is so difficult, read this article.
If your loved one is happy, you don’t need to be sad for them. So many Alzheimer’s patients suffer from depression and anxiety; how amazing is it that yours gets to go through this special happy experience that helps them cope with the struggles of their disease?
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?