Last fall Pat Robertson, who is an ordained Baptist minister and is well known for his syndicated program, the 700 Club, angered millions when he, in response to a viewer question answered during a taping of the program, stated that it is ok to divorce your spouse, should he or she suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, as long as the spouse receives custodial care, because the disease is like a death. In other words, when your spouse gets to the point where he or she can no longer recognize you, it is ok to move on without a guilt trip. What about the marital vows ‘in sickness and in health?’ or ‘until death do us part?’ exclaimed many in outraged response. Personally, I wonder how he would answer a question regarding the morality of abandoning a severely disabled child as long as the child received custodial care. Although this was medically advised not too many years ago, in 2012, even formulating such a question seems outrageous.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, divorce does not typically occur when a spouse suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The reality instead is that the family rallies around the Alzheimer’s sufferer, and his or her caregiver spouse, as this is what marriage, family, and love are all about.
But what if a dementia diagnosis is given to someone at a younger age, for example, to a person in their 30s or 40s? If I personally were to receive such a diagnosis, get to the point where I could no longer recognize my husband or children, and thus require 24-hour care, I would hope that my husband would have the opportunity to find someone to share his life and that my young children would have someone else in their lives to serve as their de facto mother.
The reality is that divorce is not uncommon when a younger person receives such a tragic diagnosis, not chiefly because of the emotional needs of the spouse and children, but rather due to economic necessity. I’ve seen firsthand the difficult choices that have to be made where one spouse has dementia, requiring 24-hour care, the healthy spouse is still working and years away from retirement, and there are minor children still living at home. In such a situation, divorce can be the only alternative to what will most certainly be financial devastation for the family. Here, with arguably very limited exception, the dementia sufferer is not ‘abandoned’ as the family, often the spouse, will most likely remain actively involved with care decision making for the dementia sufferer.
In short, although I truly believe in the sanctity of marriage, I also believe that life is not always black and white. As such, we need to be a community to those dealing with the difficult choices that a dementia diagnosis brings, whether the afflicted is age 42 or 82.
I welcome your thoughts.