in season of Alzheimers
MUST confess that former US Justice Sandra Day OConnor
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.
OConnor revealed recently that her husband John suffers
from Alzheimers, 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 Alzheimers patient at his nursing home, but
its a situation shes 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
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.
OConnors 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
Alzheimers, 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 OConnor 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 Alzheimers could
be present to testify before them because, unlike cancer,
Alzheimers 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 OConnors, 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 remainthough perhaps now to a diminishing
extentthe dirty old man, the vicey older woman.
For the handicapped and the retarded, on the other hand, little
has changed, whether youre young or getting on. People
in those conditions shouldnt even be thinking of those
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
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.
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 were young
we would find disturbing and vexing.
brains tend to go to extremesthe 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 foreverfor better or for worse.
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
negativesjealousy, selfishness, possessiveness, guilt.
Not all older love is as generous and self-forgetful
as OConnors. Some readers may have seen the recent
movie Away from Her, which has as its starting point a situation
much like that of the OConnors.
A sparkling wife over some decades, played magnificently by
Julie Christie, slips into Alzheimers, 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 hasnt yet banished remorse and the pain of
The actress Olympia Dukakis, who plays the wife of the other
man in the movie, and whose own mother had Alzheimers,
spoke of the films great resonance.
cant look at the husbands behaviour and say he
did it purely for love. Its a complicated issue, because
theres a lot of life that has been lived. Its
not going to be simple.
And yet simplicity can otherwise contain fathoms of depth.
Treating an Alzheimers patient means a daily overcoming
do the best you can, says OConnor.
Among the things she remembers about John is his love for
ice cream. Visiting him sometimes, she says, all she doesthe
best she can dois feed him ice cream.