I was reminded of a couple of experiences I had in my geriatric practice and role as clinical ethicist when I saw the movie, Away from Her, on a recent transatlantic flight.
The movie is about a couple whose marriage is tested when a woman begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and moves into a nursing home, where she loses virtually all memory of her husband and begins to develop a romance with another nursing home resident.
The events I experienced almost 20 years ago occurred while I attended, on a regular basis, a music program that my wife, Gilda, provided to residents of Baycrest’s Jewish Home for the Aged. I attended the programs with my then-young daughter, Talia, rather than being at home with her and missing the musical program.
Over a number of weeks it became apparent that there was a gentleman with Alzheimer’s attending the program. I had seen him as a patient when he lived in Baycrest Terrace, the centre’s retirement home. His reputation at the Terrace was of a very sociable, charming and attractive man – a snazzy dresser and talented dancer. I noticed that during these music sessions he favoured a particular female resident, and they usually danced together whenever there was an opportunity. Between dances they sat together and held hands and clearly demonstrated affection.
One evening his wife, still a Terrace resident, attended the music session. She observed the interaction between her husband and his lady friend. She spoke to her husband momentarily, and he did not seem especially moved by her presence or indicate that she was especially related to him. She left before the program ended. Her husband and partner continued to dance until the program wound down.
I spoke to a couple of the nurses who said that this had been going on for a few months and that the wife had told them that “he was a wonderful friend, companion and husband. He was always very charming and sociable, and if this makes him feel good, that is fine. I had more than 60 wonderful years with him, and I do not take this as a slight against me and what we had together. I know it is part of his dementia, and in many ways, he cannot help it.”
Some nurses were uncomfortable with the situation, but others accepted it and understood that their patient’s wife was a loving and remarkable woman in how she understood and accepted his current state and actions.
The movie reminded me of this situation and another one for which I was consulted on at a nursing home, where a male and female resident developed a romantic relationship. This caused distress and dismay to the woman’s children, who took the action as an act of betrayal to their late father, despite the fact they recognized their mother’s cognitive impairment and the positive effect the new romance was having on her sense of well-being.
It was, therefore, with great interest that I read an article in the Nov. 18 edition of the New York Times, by Kate Zernike, with the headline, “Love in the time of dementia.” The article reveals that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, John, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, has a romance with another woman, and the former justice is thrilled – and even visits with the new couple while they hold hands on the porch swing – because it is a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content.
This issue of late-life romance is complex, as is dementia and its effect on one’s personality. The issue of nature of romance and love is a complex one at any stage in life. But with the growing elderly population, this aspect of life and relationships must be faced and explored with great sensitivity, affection and respect for those we love, whose lives we want to be as full as possible.
Dr. Michael Gordon is medical program director of palliative care at Baycrest and co-author with Bart Mindszenthy of Parenting Your Parents (Dundurn Press).