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Alzheimer's - The Marriage Vows - Infidelity, Adultery and Love!

Marriage Vows and Alzheimer's

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"Care-giving is an inadequate term...it's really LOVE­‐giving. You essentially need to be willing to give unconditional love to the person that's suffering from Alzheimer's." - Mark Shriver

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A few years ago in the 3 November 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal there appeared a very troubling article by Alicia Mundy entitled: “Of Love and Alzheimer’s” – “When Caregivers Find  New Companions, Is It Adultery”. The accompanying  Wall Street artists drawing was poignant and heart breaking. A number of professionals were consulted and their comments were reported as well as discussing a case history.

Much ado was made of the emotional toll on the caregiving spouse and how they became the second victim of Alzheimer’s or the involved dementia causing disease...that such spouses were more likely to die themselves within a year of the afflicted spouse’s death.

The article discussed how “Religious leaders have come down on both sides of the issue. “We have made the marriage vows “for better or worse…that holds in sickness or in health.” Says Richard Gentzler Jr., director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the national United Methodist Church. “I recognize the pain of the husband, but sexual relations would be adultery”.
Richard Address, a Reform Jewish Rabbi in New York who runs a Web site called Jewish Sacred Ageing, says the longevity revolution has complicated matters. His site asked the question: “Is it still adultery if the spouse has Alzheimer’s? Mr. Anderson, who works at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, says “Alzheimer’s can rob marriages of their essence: communications.”
I remember at the time how troubling this idea was to me but tended to put it aside as an aberration that would have no following. Obviously I was wrong about this current society.
I looked at my own relationship with June as well as my close friend Dr. Don Fox who had a wife Gloria also deep into Alzheimer’s. June went 12 years to termination and Don’s wife Gloria went 15 years. I recall specifically discussing with Don that the lack of intimate relationships with June had not diminished June and my relationship but in fact had enhanced it into a much deeper love and the desire to protect and care for her. Don said that he was in full agreement with me and felt the same in his relationship with Gloria. In fact, I would say that Dr. Don Fox is perhaps the best real world example of what a husband should be in support of his Alzheimer's wife. Don has traveled alongside his wife Gloria every step of her journey through the darkness of Alzheimer's. Don has been a partner with Gloria in her journey, providing love, care, comfort and support for 15 long years without missing a step or faltering along the way! Don never had a thought to do otherwise!

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For a related story on this point as found on this website, click on this link:

(Alzheimer's and a Husbands Love for his Wife!)

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RobertsonIn September 2011, the televangelist Pat Robertson responded to a readers inquiry about marriage and Alzheimer’s by a very startling reply in which he endorsed divorce in such a case stating: “This is the person that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone.”…”I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care, somebody looking after her.” His response so angered me that I immediately ceased the monthly contributions that I had been making to his ministry and his CBN radio ministry in June and my name.

Dr. Amanda G. Smith, medical director of the Alzheimer’s Institute of the University of South Florida Health, remarked about Robertson’s’ comments, “I think he was trying to give someone the freedom to move on, but he only took account of the caregiver without taking account of the patient…Even if someone doesn’t recognize a spouse as specifically their spouse, there is often a familiarity with that person and a feeling of comfort, especially if they have been married for decades.

     Stan's Note: My wife June was always more comfortable having me around caring for her even though at times she did not recall who I was…I recall very vividly the time I was sitting with June among other late stage Alzheimer’s residents of an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility…the others were talking about husbands…June then remarked “I don’t have a husband!”…I then reminded her that I was her husband…she looked at me with a confused look and said, “I forgot.” I also recall that one day she introduced me to a new male friend. I also recall that this new male friend of June's would often look at me with angry eyes...He thought June belonged to him...I understood what was happening and that this was the disease talking and not June or this new male friend talking...June was still my wife and I loved her dealry. This was the same June who would at times cry when I left for the day even though I assured her I would promptly return! I can also recall at times I would leave the building for the day and also have tears in my eyes. The thought of abandoning June for another female relationship never entered my mind. Such a suggestion to me would have been insulting!

Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Sothern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY on hearing of Robertson’s remarks, wrote in a personal blog: “This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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In the current issue of the AARP Magazine for November 2011 this matter again rears its ugly head in an article entitled: “When the Vow Breaks”…”Is infidelity justified if your spouse has dementia” by Mary A. Fischer.

Again professionals are being quoted in support of an apparent changing society. It is some comfort to see that the Catholic position does not appear to be changing. “Sheila Garcia who is associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops office on marriage and family life says: “Certainly this kind of situation is heartbreaking…However the Catholic Church’s teaching on adultery is quite clear: It is absolutely forbidden”…It is also said that many religious and ethical teachers agree.

The article goes on however”: “Still, a new focus on the emotional needs of caregivers has prompted some psychologists, social workers and even religious leaders to redefine adultery.”…Cynthia Epstein a social worker at New York University’s Langone Medical Centerstates ” as long as you provide dignified care and honor your spouse, you need not feel guilty about seeking extramarital companionship…Dementia can persist  for 20 years…that’s a long time to do without a gratifying connection”.:

     Editorial Note: I often hear the reference to an Alzheimer’s patient living for 20 years. This is more theory than actuality…Such longevity with this disease is certainly rare! I have never seen one in the many years that I have been a caregiver to Alzheimer’s victims and a visitor to Alzheimer's facilities. (My mother went approx... 6 years while my wife June went almost 11 years. President Reagan went 10 years and Charlton Heston only a little past 5 years….the longest I have ever seen was 15 years and that was my friend Don Fox’s wife Gloria. The average is 8 years. Admittedly, these are all very long times compared to other diseases such as Cancer. Where there is a true love by the caring spouse, the number of years does not cause a breakdown of that love, the relationship or the dedication to the needs of the afflicted spouse.

A so called Ethicist Arthur Caplan (University of Pennsylvania) states” “I don’t think it is abandonment or disloyalty to form a new relationship once your spouse declines  to the point where they cannot possibly interact, love, or respond…as long as you do your best to make sure they are properly cared for, you are entitled to seek companionship.”

This is all very troubling to me. it appears that society is on a path to recognize and approve the abandoning the Alzheimer’s spouse in favor of granting the caregiver spouse the freedom to find another relationship. It further appears to me that this is all a part of an alarming trend in modern society. A trend to permit the pursuit of complete freedom in order to find individual happiness regardless of the collateral damage. The basic morality of the past, the bedrock of what is right and what is wrong that most of us have come to rely on, to cherish and value in our society is being abandoned. It is abandoned in the pursuit of the greatest possible individual freedom and individual rights. The victim of this disease is to become a marriage casualty. I cannot imagine the mental stress and the horror of the newly discovered Alzheimer’s diagnosis will be to the victim. Not only must he or she consider a long journey of into a confusing darkness but must also contemplate the fact that their spouse has license to sever his/her marriage vows and abandon them at the time of their greatest physical and emotional need. I hate to think that I must be a part of such a society.

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Editorial Update: The AARP Magazine for January 2012, has a letter published from a reader in their "THE MAIL" section of the magazine: "I take exception to "When the Vow Breaks," the article about the need for intimacy when one's spouse has Alzheimer's. When my wife and I married, we pledged to be with each other "for better or worse." She suffers from this disease, and I have no disire to leave her for the selfish gain of intimacy with somebody else."  Frank S. P. Yacino, Webster, Massachusetts. (Sounds like a voice of reason to me!)

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Pastor GlesnePastor Dave Glesne, Senior Pastor of the Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fridley, MN reviewed this essay and made the following comments on the marriage vows:

On their wedding day, brides and grooms stand before God and family and friends and promise each other to be faithful ‘for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health’.

I tell them of the fellow I heard of who thought this was the multiple choice part of the marriage ceremony. ‘I choose better – richer – health.’  But of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

The promise is not conditional upon the eventualities of life. What courage and commitment and love for their wives I have seen in the two men – Stan and Don – mentioned in this article and who I am privileged to know as their pastor. What nobility and virtue to remain faithful to marriage promises even when the worse, the poorer and ill health befall one’s journey through life.”  (30 November 2011)

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Editorial Note: My opinions as expressed here are not intended to cover every situation - there may be some situations that may represent the extreme or the rare or unusual. I can understand that perhaps there may be some situations that exceptions for divorce could be appropriate. (A marriage of alienation and open hostility pre-Alzheimer's.) Having said that, I would however always feel that the victim of the disease must have first priority. I also find it difficult to find room for compromise in the marriage vow...I know that Robertson has suggested that Alzheimer's is a form of death but that observation speaks more to Robertson's ignorance than to his understanding of the disease. I am sure that the soul and what the poet speaks of as the "heart" is always present in the victim when the brain function is no longer recognizable!

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The Bible and Love

During our Redeemer Lutheran Sunday morning service on 18 September  2012, our Senior pastor David Glesne continued with a series of lectures on Love and the Bible commandments relating to love.

As a part of that sermon he discussed the four Greek words that define various kinds of love…we have one word in English but the Greeks have four words and each has a different kind of love in mind…what was the point of the Greek lesson?…much of the original old Bible came to us in the Greek language and it in turn was then translated and interpreted…

Holy BibleThe four Greek words from the Bible and their meanings are:

Eros – meaning sexual or romantic love.

Storge – meaning parent and child love.

Phileo – meaning brotherly love.

Agape – (Agapao)  - meaning sacrificial love.

As I listened to Pastor Glesne's sermon, I could not help but think of how “Agape” describes the love of many of our Alzheimer’s caregivers on a daily basis…so to all of you caregivers, take a bow, you are what defines the zone of love and comfort around the Alzheimer’s and other dementia victims that helps to ease their late stage tremendous burdens of daily fear!...and yes it is truly sacrificial love…all the studies show that the Alzheimer’s caregivers suffer a hit to their health because of the length of the time journeying through this always terminal disease…it is not unusual for this drain on their health to bring their own life to an end before the primary victim’s final bell tolls…

I am far from an expert on the Bible but much is said in the Bible about love between husband and wife...while the Bible instructs wives to love their husbands, it sets a very high standard for the husbands love of his wife...in the Book of Ephesians chapter 5:25. the husband is clearly instructed to love his wife with a sacrificial love...I quote a passage from the King James Version.

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it."

This passage has been interpreted in various ways but it clearly says that the husband should stand by his wife even if it means his death would result from his thus protecting her. The Bible takes a very serious view of husband and wife love. I have always hoped that I could respond without hesitation in a like manner if called upon to do so. That is not the kind of love that is here today and gone tomorrow. The Bible would never excuse a husband caregiver from exercising anything but a sacrificial or Agape love for his wife. Pastor Glesne has verified that my above quotation from the book of  Ephesians, did in fact use the Greek word Agape in the original Greek Bible from which the translation was made into the King James Version in 1611..

"Husbands agapao your wives..."

Virtuous wives are treated with great respect in the Bible...the Old Testament  Book of Proverbs talks of virtuous wives having value far greater then rubies and that such a wife will do the husband good all the days of her life. It is little wonder that the New Testament Book of Ephesians later admonishes husbands to love their wives with "Agape" love...

June kept a quotation from the bible on the living room coffee table. The quotation defines "Love".  The quotation is from the Bible: :

1 Corinthians 13:7. (KJV):   Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

This quotation also clearly describes June's love, the love that she gave me and it describes  the necessary love of a caregiver!.

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The “Wrinkle Think” Blog by Thomas Torrey on 19 September 2011 had an interesting story of a husband care giver for his wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s. His attitude is a model for all husbands who have wives with this terrible disease.

The husband, who is 78 years of age, has a wife in an Alzheimer’s facility in a South Carolina healthcare community. The husband John lives nearby in an apartment. They have been married for 55 years. Every day at 4 PM, John is said to visit his wife and feed her dinner and tell her of his day.

The blog interviewed the husband who was said to have spoken plainly: “without a hint of self pity”…

“When we were married we understood that that would be a life long relationship. That was important to both of us. She can’t carry her end of it now, but I can carry my end. And that’s enough.

I love her still. In fact, there is nothing bad that happens that doesn’t have some good to it. I truly believe that.  

And I never knew how deep love could be until I was forced to love at a deeper level, without reward for it.

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The Baltimore Sun newspaper of 16 September 2005 contained a story that is very much in point to this discussion. The headline reads: “Max L. Cohen, 97 and Bessie Cohen, 94, Wedded 74 Years, Died an Hour Apart” This story was brought to my attention by a Facebook friend Linda Giorgilli, of Tampa, Florida and former resident of Baltimore, Maryland. The Cohen’s were Ms. Giorgilli’s Great Uncle and Great Aunt. The story reads:

“For more than seven decades, Max and Bessie Cohen had shared a loving and productive life together, blessed by two children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and enriched by a wide circle of adoring friends….Both died Monday, ending 74 years and nine months of marriage- he from complications of dementia at 97, and she in her sleep at 94 – in the home they had shared since 1978 in Northwest Baltimore’s Pickwick Apartments.” Note: While the type of Dementia is not indicated, it was probably Alzheimer’s as this disease accounts for 70-80% of all Dementia cases. Obviously this disease did not change their loving relationship or marriage.

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Huffington Post (AOL News) 27 January 2012 contained another interesting related news item similar to the above story. “Long Married Couple Presley and Ethel Bradshaw Die Hours Apart” The news article indicates that this Kentucky couple had been married for 73 years when they died hours apart in a Louisville Nursing home.(Meadowview Health and Rehab Center) Ethel had entered the nursing home 4 years earlier when her health declined. It was said that she had “Dementia”.    Again the type of dementia is not identified but it is assumed that it was probably Alzheimer’s because of the high prevalance of this type of Dementia.

”Presley, 101 visited his wife there several times a week…He would hold her hand, kiss all over her, tell her how much he loved her and missed her…two years later, he moved into the center to be with his wife...They were the true epitome of the word love, said Meadowview nurse Chasity Stoudemire…Presley died first, with Ethel following him four hours later. Though Ethel suffered from dementia, Bass (Director of Admissions) believes she was aware that her husband had died...it seems that long married couples are often intrinsically aware of the death of one spouse, perhaps because of their strong bond. The couple were married on Oct. 21, 1938 in Somerset, Kentucky”. Once again, this terrible disease did not affect the long standing marriage or the love of this husband and wife!

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On a lighter note… it was just a few days ago (10 November 2011) that WCCO-TV News aired one of their “good questions” feature series on how many times/frequently did normal couples have sexual relations…I rather facetiously but honestly made the following comment on the facebook page of Amelia Santaniello the WCCO-TV Anchor lady involved in the question.

“I was amused by last night's good question on frequency of sex in the marriage relationship...for me it has been so long I hardly remember what the term means...for June and me, sex ended very early in her 12 year journey into the shadows of Alzheimer's...that did not affect our marriage relationship...in fact the deeper she travelled into the darkness of Alzheimer's the more intense my love for her became and the more I wanted to care for and protect her...now that she has been in Heaven for over 3 years (October 23rd, 2008) …I still consider her my wife...while death can change our relationship, it has not severed it...she will always be my little lamb...”

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 June and Stan Nov 2007

(Jim Gehrz photo - November 2007 - June - Stan - Chapel - Benedictine Health Care Center)

 

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Reader's Comments 

Alzheimer Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc.  - St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador - (25 February 2013): "Thank you so much for sharing! -Amelia White, Events Coordinator."

Bryn Sineath  - Hot Springs, Arkansas - (25 February 2013): "Shared..."

Susan Owen  - Princeton, West Virginia - (19 July 2014): "I am not to this point with my husband who suffers with FTD. Reading your comments do help if and when I am faced with this situation. My husband and I will soon share our 42nd anniversary. It will go on whether or not he remembers. I will continue to love and care for him. Stanton you do make an excellent point. The move to a NH should be a partnership...with the NH being the better helping with the worse as we continue to love and cherish ...with help till the end. LOVE YOU ALL. Sunshine Suzy."

G'Anna Martin-Dent  - Amarillo, Texas - (19 Juky 2014):"Stan, I think it's amazing and loving what you did for June. It's a great testimony of your love for her. I care for my bedridden mother at home. She is unable to move and on liquids only. I just turned 43 so even with my MS I think it's easier for me to turn her, feed her, change her etc. It wears me out but I can do it. Now if I were in my 70's or 80's I doubt I could. Care homes are there for this purpose and I think you made a good point about how they can be a great an essential partner in your loved one's care!"

Caroline Smith  - Ashford, Kent, England - (19 July 2014): "I think there is a differents between sticking by someone with an illness because of duty no matter how they may feel inside or sticking by because you want to hold onto as much of your loved one as possible and want to be with them through it.We have spouses who come in every day without fail and some who visit once or twice a week I don't think they care less or love less they just have a different relationship." 

Carol Burns Loyer - Hamilton, Ontario, Canada - (19 July 2014): "When we got married and when we did our vows and said in sickness or health till death do us part... my husband has early onset Alzheimer's and when I found out he had this it was a given that I would care for him, not because its my duty to but its because I love him...in my opinion anyone that leaves a person knowing the person is sick never loved that person to begin with."

Ola Lachney  - Atlanta, Georgia - (19 July 2014): "Very interesting !"

Jacqui Pebbles Keylock - Cirencester, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom - (19 July 2014): "I will look after my husband for as long as I can at home but as I am disabled too it is going to be very hard. I did help care for his Mum so I am aware of what the future holds. Saying that I know if it was me with dementia my Hubby could not cope with looking after me, not everyone can . As we all know it is very hard and not everyone is able to home care."

Darlene Aube  - Aurora, Ontario, Canada - (19 July 2014): "Married for life- through sickness and health."

Louise Ann Howard  - Batemans Bay, New South Wales, Australia - (21 July 2014): "Agree Stanton, it is for life no matter. We all have our battles. True love gets through everything."

 

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June's Passing

June 1994 

June's obituary as printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune following her death in October 2008 can be found on the top blue navigation strip under the label "In Memoriam" and on the drop down menu as item:

"June K. (Rolstad) Berg - In Memoriam"