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Your Health

Rona Barrett: ‘Romantic’ Attachments Not Uncommon in Alzheimer’s Patients

Birds do it ... bees do it ... even our parents or loved ones in the throes of Alzheimer’s do it.

OK, a songwriter I am not. So I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.

I remember the day my sister called my widowed father and the first thing he said was, "I have a girlfriend." My sister replied, "What's her name?" Silence. He put down the phone and walked away. Several minutes later he returned with a card in his hand and replied, "Her name is Cheryl!" Seems my Dad could not recall his new girlfriend’s name, so he wrote it down on a piece of paper in his wallet, which he left in his bedroom. He remembered that, but not much more.

Now, imagine yourself in a loving marriage for over 50 years. The unconditional pact you made with each other was if one needed help, the other would always be there. Then, for two decades you watch your beloved slip further into Alzheimer’s. The time inescapably comes when you realize your loved one would have a better quality of life in a well-chosen care facility.

Then, within 48 hours after moving into the care facility, your beloved is in love once again. But not with you!

Should you be shocked your loved one, who no longer recognizes you and has forgotten the tender loving care you have given over the years, is now enamored with a fellow Alzheimer’s patient? According to Richard Powers, M.D., of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, romantic attachments among the more than 5 million Alzheimer’s patients “is common enough that we need to be able to deal with patients’ need for intimacy in a thoughtful and compassionate way.”

Should you be angry? Dr. Powers cautions, "You have to remember that it's not that your spouse is rejecting you, or that they don't care about you anymore, but they lack the ability to recognize these memories or their feelings. It's the disease; it's not personal."

Should you feel guilty for not providing enough care or intimacy? “Forgive yourself,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s blog. “Guilt is often the result of refusing to accept that some things are beyond our control and accepting there are often no perfect solutions.”

Whatever your personal reaction is to this caregiver’s conundrum, Gray Matters will raise and discuss issues that many of us are uncomfortable thinking about — issues from which none of us will be exempt as the 65-plus population nearly doubles by 2050.

Case in point: the caregiver’s beloved spouse who fell in love with another Alzheimer’s patient — Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice. Her reaction? According to her son in a USA Today article, she was “thrilled [he] was relaxed and happy … he was a teenager in love … a relief after a painful period.”

This moral dilemma illustrates one of the many unprecedented, perplexing, emotionally charged issues faced by those of us caring for elderly loved ones. Issues without any clear cut “should” or “should not.”

Until next time … keep thinking the good thoughts.

— In honor of her late father, entertainment journalist, author, senior activist and Santa Barbara County resident Rona Barrett is the driving force behind the Golden Inn & Village, the area’s first affordable senior living and care facility, scheduled to begin construction in early 2015. Contact her at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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