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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published August 08 2010

Bursack: Alzheimer’s romance adds to pain

Dear Carol: We had to place my mother in a memory care assisted living center a few months ago.

She and my dad have been married over 50 years and had a very close marriage. Now, she has become friendly with a male resident, and they go to each other’s rooms. There’s been no sex involved, but there is a sexual atmosphere that upsets my dad. We’ve met with the staff, and they try to keep them occupied and separated, but they still find ways to get back together. Do you have any suggestions? – Amy

Dear Amy: Understandably, this is painful for you and extremely painful for your dad. However, it’s not as unusual, nor is it as so hard to understand if we think about it. Your mom most likely doesn’t remember who your dad is, as he is now. She may remember him as he was 40 years ago. She may even wonder, especially if she sees an old photo of him, where he went. This is not her fault, nor is it a failing in the marriage.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor faced this problem. Her husband, now deceased, had Alzheimer’s disease and was in a nursing home. They’d had a close marriage. During his stay in the facility, her husband “fell in love.” He no longer remembered his wife.

O’Connor went public about this situation to lend support to other spouses who must cope with this situation. She and her family said in interviews that she was happy because he was happily in love. She was realistic in that she knew this was not about her, her husband or their marriage. She knew this was the disease. Most likely O’Connor suffered significantly in private, but she was also pragmatic about the reality of the situation.

Not everyone can be as supportive and accepting as O’Connor. It’s very understandable that your family is upset. Your dad, especially, may benefit from some counseling and education through the Alzheimer’s Association, or even private counseling. Having one’s spouse victimized by AD is hard enough. To watch one’s beloved spouse romance another person is an additional stab to the heart. However, understanding the true nature of the disease could help you all hold on to a bit of what was once a beautiful marriage, damaged by a disease not lack of love.

Your mom, as she was, hasn’t changed, but the disease has erased her memory of her beloved husband and marriage.

You and your family have my condolences.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.