Monday 26th May, 2008

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Love in season of Alzheimer’s

I MUST confess that former US Justice Sandra Day O’Connor fell much in my esteem during the 2000 US presidential election, with her unrestrained bias as the results came in, and nervous second thoughts about resigning, at the sheer prospect of a Gore presidency. That was then.

O’Connor revealed recently that her husband John suffers from Alzheimer’s, and like most spouses in her position, she valiantly tries to keep alive the memories of their former life together, as he disappears more and more before her eyes.

Lately, she confided, John has been having a romance with another Alzheimer’s patient at his nursing home, but it’s a situation she’s not unhappy with. She 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.

“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare wrote in one of his more memorable sonnets, though I doubt that even he knew what range and possibilities lay in “alteration.”

O’Connor’s generosity of spirit erased all my negative feelings about her. I found myself thinking instead of the myriad ways love can humble and surprise.

Practically everyone today knows of someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the stories are always the same, no matter how often told. The disease is a prolonged form of living death for the spouse and the rest of the family. The person, as O’Connor says with terrible simplicity, “disappears” before your eyes.

At a US Senate committee hearing on the disease, Newt Gingrich told the committee that no survivor of Alzheimer’s could be present to testify before them because, unlike cancer, Alzheimer’s has no survivors.

The miracle still is that among patients the desire for intimacy persists even when the disease steals and destroys so much else. New attachments develop, and the stories, like that of the O’Connors, who are both 77, often reveal not only great poignancy but also great richness.

Love in such a season enjoys little or no recognition, though it is something people with relatives in nursing homes often see, and certainly workers in the homes know about.

The same goes for love in the later years generally. It has little standing in the culture, which reserves all its poetry and song for “young love.” For “old love,” standard images remain—though perhaps now to a diminishing extent—the dirty old man, the vicey older woman.

For the handicapped and the retarded, on the other hand, little has changed, whether you’re young or getting on. People in those conditions shouldn’t even be thinking of those things.

And yet the broader landscape of love has much to teach us, its most basic lesson being that all human beings (“ALL,” as Melville once emphasised it) desire to love and be loved.

This longing, inclination, or need, however you describe it, is a defining mark of our creaturely condition and status. From this perspective, even mistakes in love are more in line with how we are constituted than walled-off priggishness and prudishness.

Life expectancy today has increased, and if you link this with the fact that recent generations will have known greater sexual freedom than previously, it means that the agenda for “elder care,” or what is oddly called “assisted living,” will become progressively more complex. It has also opened up new, interesting avenues of research.

What significant differences are there in the experience of love between younger and older people? Differences there must be, for the obvious reason that as we grow older, how we see the world changes.

“As people get older,” says John Gabrieli, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they seem to naturally look at the world through positivity and be willing to accept things that when we’re young we would find disturbing and vexing.”

“Young brains tend to go to extremes—the swooning or sobbing so characteristic of young love,” says Laura Carstensen, a research colleague of Gabrieli. “Old love puts things in softer focus.”

The important feature, as observations like these indicate, is the feature of time. As age comes on, you begin to realise that nothing lasts forever—for better or for worse.

“You understand that the bad times pass, and you understand that the good times pass,” says Carstensen.

Of course, love at any age is bedevilled by all the same age-old negatives—jealousy, selfishness, possessiveness, guilt. Not all “older love” is as generous and self-forgetful as O’Connor’s. Some readers may have seen the recent movie Away from Her, which has as its starting point a situation much like that of the O’Connors.

A sparkling wife over some decades, played magnificently by Julie Christie, slips into Alzheimer’s, and into a romance with a fellow patient at her nursing home. Her husband arranges for her new boyfriend to return to the home after seeing how crushed his wife is when he moves away.

It seems a perfect example of art imitating life, but this story is more complex. The husband had a series of affairs years earlier, so what seems like devotion is also reparation. His love hasn’t yet banished remorse and the pain of guilt.

The actress Olympia Dukakis, who plays the wife of the other man in the movie, and whose own mother had Alzheimer’s, spoke of the film’s great resonance.

“You can’t look at the husband’s behaviour and say he did it purely for love. It’s a complicated issue, because there’s a lot of life that has been lived. It’s not going to be simple.”

Indeed not.

And yet simplicity can otherwise contain fathoms of depth. Treating an Alzheimer’s patient means a daily overcoming of loss.

“You do the best you can,” says O’Connor.

Among the things she remembers about John is his love for ice cream. Visiting him sometimes, she says, all she does—the best she can do—is “feed him ice cream.”

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