The endurance of love in the face of Alzheimer’s disease

Many of us learned a lot more about Alzheimer’s through the great President Reagan, after it was announced via a handwritten letter he wrote in 1994, at the age of 83, that he had been diagnosed with the disease. The more we have learned over the years and continue to learn about the disease, whether it be through reading about it or watching a loved one suffer from it, the more it was and is understood what a truly devastating disease Alzheimer’s is.

All diseases, of course, come with their own set of unique problems, and the purpose of this post isn’t to get into a discussion about what diseases are worse than others, but Alzheimer’s, with what it does to the human mind, seems especially cruel. I was having a discussion about it recently with a friend of mine, and commented on how difficult it has to be for those suffering from the disease in the early stages, when they have some idea of what they are going through, and how heartwrenching it must be for family members and friends to watch their loved one’s memory slowly fade away, to the point where in some cases they don’t even remember their own names, and no longer recognize those who care about them the most.

Joan Biskupic, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s biographer, wrote a piece today in the USA Today which talked about O’Connor’s husband John, an Alzheimer’s sufferer for 17 years, who has forgotten who his wife is and has fallen for someone else:

WASHINGTON — Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, has found a new romance, and his happiness is a relief to his wife, an Arizona TV report reveals.

The report, which quoted the couple’s oldest son, Scott O’Connor, focused on Alzheimer’s patients who forget their spouses and fall in love with someone else. Experts say the scenario is somewhat common.

Offering a glimpse into the private life of a woman who has remained on the public stage since her Supreme Court retirement in 2006 to care for her husband, the report spotlighted John O’Connor, 77. He and the woman, referred to only as “Kay,” live at a Phoenix facility for people with Alzheimer’s.

“Mom was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy and comfortable living here and wasn’t complaining,” Scott, 50, told KPNX-Channel 12 in Phoenix in a story that aired Thursday. The station is owned by Gannett, as is USA TODAY.

[…]

Scott compared his father to “a teenager in love” and said, “For Mom to visit when he’s happy … visiting with his girlfriend, sitting on the porch swing holding hands,” was a relief after a painful period.

Here’s what KPNX reported:

John O’Connor has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for 17 years. Recently he came to live at the Huger Mercy Living Center in downtown Phoenix. O’Connor’s son, Scott, says his father struggled with the adjustment, felt alone, disconnected and often talked of suicide.

But when staff members moved John to another cottage on site, a strange thing happened. John took up with another woman, a lady named “Kay.” They are often together, holding hands. You would expect jealousy and heartache from the former Supreme Court Judge but that’s not what happened.

Scott O’Connor says his mother felt relief because the man she loves was happy, no longer distraught and suicidal but acting like a teenager in love.

I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions Justice O’Connor – and her family – have been experiencing over the last 17 years as her husband has battled Alzheimer’s, especially now that the disease has stolen his ability to recognize his wife. It would appear that Justice O’Connor is at peace with what’s happening because she knows her husband is happy, even though surely it must be bittersweet.

For her to be able to accept that her husband no longer knows who she is, and at the same time rest in the knowledge that the man she loves is now happy again – with another woman – says alot about the strength of the love Sandra Day O’Connor feels for her husband.

There are millions of other people like her who, too, have had to watch someone they love suffer from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s. My heart goes out to them all.

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