Caring Currents

Alzheimer's Romance: Why Sandra Day O'Connor Is Right

Last updated:

March 24, 2009
City romance
Image by annia316 used under the creative commons attribution license.

Is it possible to be "totally glad" when the love of your life is happily holding hands with someone else? Yes, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told Sunday's New York Times. Her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1990. Since then at least two different women have become attached to him, she mentioned in an interview about her new kids' website Ourcourts.org.

But what about when the person flaunting this warm new relationship is your parent "“ can you also sit by feeling "totally glad"?

Alzheimer's and romance are strange bedfellows, but bedfellows they often are. And I've heard from people who work in the Alzheimer's-care field that adult children often take these new attachments harder than spouses do. I confess I contemplated the weirdness of this reaction myself when, for a time, I wondered if my own dad was growing romantically interested in someone only months after my mom died. (Nothing happened.)

Why would adult children have stronger reactions to their parents' Alzheimer's romances even than spouses? Well"¦

  • It's another level of abandonment. First your "old" parent disappears as behavior changes, memory warps, and so on. That can trigger real feelings of loss. To then see Mom or Dad showering affection on a perfect stranger (often instead of on you) is jarring, and in a primal way.

  • It's so out of character. Witnessing your parent act like an adolescent in love is disconcerting under any circumstances. If he or she was once taciturn or reserved, Alzheimer's tends to melt away those gruff personality traits, paving the way for naked puppy love. Embarrassing.

  • You feel bad for your other parent. Seeing Dad hold hands with some other woman, or Mom moon over a fellow from respite care can trigger feelings of loyalty and sympathy toward your well parent. That's natural.

Here's where it helps to understand the reality behind this amorous behavior. It's about present-moment emotional need and expressiveness. It's not a comment about the whole arc of the person's life, or his disenchantment or rejection of a lifelong mate. (Your well parent likely already intuits this, having lived up close with the disease awhile.)

For someone with Alzheimer's to attach to a person in his everyday life is a good thing. It provides comfort, reassurance, and happiness "“ just as his former marriage did (or maybe didn't, and if so all the better for him).

Just because someone has Alzheimer's doesn't mean he doesn't need touch. Doesn't mean he doesn't need kind words. Doesn't mean he doesn't experience a heart rush to see someone he's fond of. His memory may be short-circuited to the point where his partner (or child) of 20 or 40 years no longer triggers those feelings, especially once the person is ready for a care facility. Instead it's the resident down the hall, whom he sees constantly, who becomes a ready source of that joy.

It's inspiring that Justice O'Connor is frank about the topic. She "gets" that the Alzheimer's isn't about her. It's about where it's taking the person she loves.

Are there exceptions? Do you disagree? I'm curious about others' experiences with this strange twist of reality.