Dear Family Advisor

Since my husband, who has Alzheimer's, moved into a nursing home, I've become very close to a neighbor gentleman. Should I keep it a secret or let my family and friends know?

Last updated: Dec 02, 2008

My husband and I are both 64 years old. I'm healthy -- I take yoga and walk every day. My husband has had Alzheimer's for the past five years.

At the beginning of this year, I had to put him in a care center. I just couldn't handle him any more. It was such a terrible decision to have to make, but he seems to be doing a little better.

My situation is this:

A neighbor gentleman and I have become very close. He lost his wife last year to lung cancer, and we walk together every day. It's just so nice to have someone to talk to and laugh with. I'm still a very good wife to my husband. I visit him every day, even though most days he doesn't know who I am, and I still make sure he's being cared for in every way.

I'm embarrassed for people to find out that I've been spending time with my neighbor, but part of me has learned that life is so short, and if I don't have something to look forward to, I might as well crawl in a hole. I love my husband, but I know I'll never get "us" back. I will never stop caring for him and I have no plans to divorce him.

Should I tell my children about my friend? I'm afraid they'll think terrible things about me. It's just that I'm lonely and I so look forward to spending time with someone my own age who finds me interesting.

I feel for you. Being the spouse of a person with Alzheimer's is painful and confusing. You're married, but in many ways you've already lost your husband to this insidious disease. You probably feel isolated -- it's awkward to pal around with couples and you feel like a single woman in social situations -- but your family and friends still see you as married. And then there are the vows " … until death do us part." What does that mean in a situation like this?

In some ways, Alzheimer's changes the rules. It's like a war situation, when we redefine the rules we normally live by and what's best in any given situation. Societies generally don't condone stealing, for example, but if a mother steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving children during a war, I wouldn't think she was a bad person.

You've been in your own kind of war. You've been "on the battlefield" as a caregiver, and you're exhausted, hungry, lonely, and scared. Sitting by the side of your husband indefinitely, with nothing for yourself, may sound heroic, but in fact, it just means that the disease is destroying two people's lives.

Your husband still recognizes you sometimes, but eventually -- maybe even soon -- he won't know who you are. Your responsibility as his wife is to make sure he's safe, his needs are met, and that when he begins the dying process, he's given the dignity, respect, and care that he deserves. This is love "until death do us part."

My mother had Alzheimer's, so I've thought about this on a personal level. I told my husband that if I'm ever in this situation, I want him to pursue life and love. I think that's a testament to the depth of our love.

I learned from caring for my mom that life is short and precious, and at times very, very hard. We should take whatever joy and sweetness we can eke out without truly hurting someone else. To live, to be truly alive, is a privilege that shouldn't be squandered because someone will think badly of us. As I used to tell my teens, "Do you really care if everyone likes you?"

That leads to your question: Should you tell your friends and kids? If this is more than a diversion that's lasted for a few weeks, as it seems to be, I'd say that you should. Secrets are difficult to keep, and your family will feel betrayed if they find out. Many times when parents become close to someone new, things start off on the wrong foot because they're embarrassed or scared to admit their feelings to those close to them. Then family and friends don't have time to adjust, to get to know the person before the relationship becomes more permanent.

You might try sharing the news with one person at a time, just to get used to saying it out loud and getting a reaction. Whatever you do, though, tell the truth as you told it to me: You'll always love and take care of your husband, but you're lonely and enjoy this man's company. I bet that most people will understand and sympathize with the difficult situation you're in.

I also suspect that some people won't. Realize that you may lose a friend along the way. Will your neighbors gossip behind your back and give you dirty looks as you drive by? Maybe, but unless they've walked in your shoes, they have no idea what you've been through.

Be prepared for the fact that some of your children also may not take it well. They may argue with you, take it as a personal betrayal, or not talk to you for awhile. If they're young adults, they may still see the world in black and white and not be quite ready to process the complex issues involved. Lovingly but firmly let them know that this is your decision. Give them some time. Once they see that their dad isn't going to get any better and that you have continued to watch over him and make sure he's cared for, they may very well come around.

If this relationship does turn into something long-term, then you'll want to integrate this gentleman into your life. Don't neglect your relationships with your children, grandchildren, and friends. People in new relationships tend to throw everything into that one person, and it's very hurtful to those who have been there for you for many years. Keep aiming for togetherness. You need everyone in your life -- your kids, your neighbors, your church and community, your friends -- so keep this as your ultimate goal.

Since you haven't been in a courtship situation for a while, I feel compelled to remind you that, like any relationship, this one may not last. Make sure to be safe -- physically, emotionally, and financially. I know that sounds harsh, as if he's not to be trusted, but this is just good common sense. I don't want to see you hurt in a time when you're already vulnerable.

If it doesn't work out -- or even if it does -- get out and do some other new things. We're no different than we were in our teens or 20s, and it's easy to get a little tunnel vision when we meet someone new. Don't miss how big and wonderful life is. Branch out beyond yoga to other classes, or take a weekend trip with your girlfriends. A balanced life is always healthiest.

And finally, enjoy yourself! If you're going to do this, then don't give in to guilt and embarrassment. There's nothing better than looking forward to seeing someone who enjoys your company. Embrace life, embrace your choices, and make the most of this rare chance to experience an unexpected gift that life has brought your way.