Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Seized by Alzheimer's, Then Love

Sometimes Alzheimer’s disease means losing a loved one twice.

The NY Times reports:

As the disease ravages the brain and erases memory, patients who have been married for years, even most of their lives, may stop recognizing their spouses. And sometimes, in a phenomenon rarely discussed, husbands and wives find they must watch helplessly as patients fall in love with someone entirely new.
The romantic lives of Alzheimer’s patients made headlines this week with news that the 77-year-old husband of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, John Jay O’Connor III, has found companionship with a woman in the nursing home in which he lives. The two patients reportedly spend time together and hold hands, even in the presence of Justice O’Connor.

Although no research has tracked how often people with Alzheimer’s disease develop new romances, doctors say it’s not particularly unusual for married patients to bond with someone new. Although the disease may steal the memories of past lives, it doesn’t take away the desire for love and companionship.

“Imagine if all the people you know and loved disappeared,’’ said Dr. Richard Powers, chairman of the medical advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “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.’’

Family members often aren’t sure how to regard such a liaison. The children of Alzheimer’s patients often find the adjustment difficult, said Dr. Powers, while many spouses actually are heartened to see a husband or wife comforted by a new friend. Although Justice O’Connor hasn’t commented, her son was quoted as saying that the family is happy that Mr. O’Connor seems to have found rays of contentment in the darkness of his disease.

“It’s not uncommon at all for families and spouses to allow this to go on, because it sustains a person’s happiness,’’ said Dr. Powers. “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.’’