In 2007, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband fell in love with another woman. The story made headlines, but not because it was a scandalous affair. It was big news because it represented a phenomenon few people had heard of at the time … and probably to this day: patients with Alzheimer’s, who no longer recognize their spouses, going on to forge romantic bonds with new partners.
Everyone needs love
Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t diminish a person’s need to find love and companionship. In fact, because a person who has lost all or most of their memories feels so alone, this drive may become even stronger. Dr. Richard Powers, chairman of the medical advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, describes it as waking up in an unfamiliar place where the person doesn’t know a soul and perhaps doesn’t even speak the same language. When they finally meet someone who understands them, it’s only natural that they drift toward that safe harbor and hold on tightly.
Impact on families
While those who stumble upon these new connections feel fulfilled, happy, even giddy, the reaction on the other side of the equation isn’t quite as predictable. There may be a feeling of betrayal or shock, but just as often, spouses who are left behind are heartened to see their longtime loves content again and don’t allow themselves to wallow in selfish, “woe is me” feelings.
Husbands and wives aren’t the only ones touched by this phenomenon though. “Sometimes adult children can have a harder time with it than the spouse,” says Donna Schempp, LCSW, program director of the Family Caregiver Alliance. “It’s difficult to deal with feeling like your mom or dad has been replaced.”
Not only do adult children have to adjust to their mom or dad playing second fiddle, but some find themselves also replaced. “Very often, a person with Alzheimer’s doesn’t know who their child is anymore and replaces them with a home aide or a friend,” explains Schempp. “In their brain, by creating an identity with this new person, they are reconfiguring the family dynamic that was comfortable or nurturing to them.”
Empathy is key
To understand what is happening with your husband or wife, mom or dad, you have to understand what they are going through. Notes Powers, “It doesn’t mean they are replacing their spouse or the family they’ve loved their whole loves, they’re just adjusting any way they can.”