Many readers responded to my column, “Daughter-in-Law Is Upset with Father-in-Law’s Behavior”, which raised the issue of developing romantic relationships when one’s spouse has severe Alzheimer’s disease. One reader points out the relevance of this issue with these facts: More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease; it is currently the sixth leading cause of death; it claims 500,000 lives a year. Those numbers are expected to increase with longer life expectancies.
The comments focused on the appropriateness versus the inappropriateness in establishing romantic relationships by a spouse married to someone who is incapacitated by Alzheimer’s. The comments ranged from encouraging to accepting to condoning to condemning such relationships.
For example, one reader wrote: Even when my mother no longer recognized anyone, my dad spent all day, every day, with her. He became a very bitter and isolated man. He constantly criticized my brother and me and our kids for not spending more time with her. The wife with a husband on the same floor reached out to my dad several times seeking friendship and companionship, but he rebuffed her. We wanted him to spend time with her. In fact, we would not have minded in the least if they became romantically involved. Then, perhaps, he would not have become such an unpleasant and self-pitying man.
Another reader describes the conflicting emotions that can arise while trying to accept a parent who is dating: Having a family member with Alzheimer’s is a sad, and at the same time, sticky situation. I remember when my friend Bailey’s dad was in a home — no longer recognizing family. Bailey and her family literally went through a grieving process way before her dad passed away. This disease “kills” our loved ones while they are still (physically) alive.
Thus, the non – Alzheimer’s spouse “dating” is not unheard of (as you point out in your research). They have truly “lost” their spouse in every way, except for their physical presence. Bailey’s mom did date before her dad died. It was very hard for Bailey, but she was able to rationally understand her mom’s loss of her partner.
A grandfather shares his experiences: My mother had Alzheimer’s for seven years and my dad was a wonderful caretaker. After my mother was finally placed in full care, he became involved with a very nice lady. He continued to visit and care for my mother.
It was hard, but my wife and I remained silent and tried our best not to judge. My Dad died a few years ago, about ten years after my mother’s death. I came to realize in part that he was very dependent, and the woman that was in his life while my mother was still alive, filled a real need.
This is a very complicated situation. My advice to your questioner is to focus on her relationship with her father-in-law and not on who he is to others or with others. I try to do this in all my relationships.
Several readers expressed their disapproval of spouses of Alzheimer’s patients dating, as exemplified by this mom who lost her mother to Alzheimer’s at a young age: My dad took care of my mom every day at home with part-time help and then hospice. My dad must surely be one in a million since the thought of even looking elsewhere away from my mom during her illness was simply non-existent. I am certainly partial to the fact that my parents had an amazing marriage, but that man who had to cheat on his wife during her illness is not someone I respect. While I know first hand how horrible this disease is and what it can do to a person and their caretaker, I do not approve of the cheater’s behavior.
My father’s undying love and devotion to my mom were always present which, to me, shows his character and moral compass in a way. There are many outlets for caretakers and I’m pretty sure having an affair is not the best one to choose. Seems more like an excuse to me.
Even years after my mom’s passing my dad would ignore women who were interested in him — he simply had no interest. I know that is rare and it makes me appreciate my parents’ relationship even more today than I did growing up.
I’m not really trying to judge this man, but I guess I am doing just that anyway. Turning away from someone when they are sick and helpless is a cowardly thing to do and my dad was never that man, so I guess I just can’t relate.
In talking about such a difficult and sad topic as the one under discussion here, imagine my surprise in receiving a comment that was intended to make me smile! I share it in closing: My mother-in-law Amy died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. In her final years she transitioned to a nursing home. She always recognized Bart, her husband, (who was my father-in-law), but obviously things didn’t always come together for her and it seemed as though pieces of her memory stream were missing.
One day my husband, my father-in-law Bart, and I went together to visit her. We walked into the facility and here comes Amy, arm-in-arm with a man! As we walk toward her she sees us and, still with the man in arm, she quickly walks to us, very excited that we are there. She stops in front of Bart, kisses him, and then says, “Bart, this is my boyfriend, Ted. Ted, this is my husband, Bart.” Then she kisses Ted! Bart just smiled, shakes Ted’s hand and tells him he’s pleased to meet him.
Bart later said he was just glad that Amy had someone and that she was happy. We all felt that way.
Are you smiling?
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