Thoughts About Pat Robertson's Comments on Marriage, Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Pat Robertson’s recent comments have definitely struck a nerve. For those who missed his comments, Robertson was responding on the 700 Club to a call-in question about a man whose wife has Alzheimer’s and who no longer recognizes her husband. According to the New York Times, Robertson said, "That is a terribly hard thing," Robertson said.  "I hate Alzheimer's. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. But I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her."

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    The responses have been overwhelmingly against Robertson. One opinion poll run by the Alzheimer’s Reading Room was showing 92 percent disagreeing with Robertson, while 3 percent agreed. Five percent responded that they didn’t know. (Please note that this survey didn’t share the total number of respondents, so it may be a small sample.)

    Strolling around the Internet and you can find more descriptive reactions.  My friend, Judy, wrote on Facebook, “Pat Robertson=MORON”; the responses to her posts were overwhelmingly in agreement. And Leah, who has vascular dementia and who serves as an expert for this HealthCentral site, disagreed with Robertson's take, noting, “Why didn't Mr. Robertson zone in on the man's frustration and loneliness...and validate that...rather than giving the man an easy out of the which breaks the promise he made in good faith to his suffering wife many years before?”

    I tended to agree with them, until I think back to a very thought-provoking book, “Jan’s Story,” written by Barry Petersen, an Emmy-Award winning CBS News correspondent. I had promised when I wrote a sharepost about the book for this site to share one of Petersen’s life twists, but I hadn’t found the right time. However, Pat Robertson’s comments provide the perfect reason to share.

    Throughout his book, Petersen candidly describes the couple’s life B.A. (before Alzheimer’s), during his wife’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the couple’s life as her memory evaporated.  In his book, Petersen includes an update that he sent to their friends and family in November 2008, when his wife’s disease had progressed considerably. He wrote, “And how do I live with a loneliness made worse because of what we once were? I am drifting without her. Drifting to what or where, I do not know…. There are moments when I feel such intense failure that I simply freeze in place and wonder about just getting up and going on. Why bother? If I couldn’t take of Jan, what really was my life all about? And worse, do I really want the rest of my life like this?”

    Petersen also recounts how he had discussed the possibility of committing suicide during therapy sessions. The November update also made his family and friends worry that Petersen was truly considering taking his own life. “I was finally and hopefully lost in the darkest part of a valley, a deep abyss, a place that offers no good reason to go on,” Petersen wrote in the book. “In this valley, in this blinding blackness, all you can see is what is gone. And you only see that in your memories.” He even pondered ways to commit suicide, thinking that if he didn’t, he would go insane.

  • Petersen’s friends had a different suggestion for him – to find a woman.  One of his friends gave this advice, stating that Petersen needed comfort. Other friends soon echoed these sentiments. These ideas made Petersen feel uncomfortable. “First, it seemed disloyal to even considering finding someone else,” he wrote. “Second, was this my leaving her? Or was it finally a recognition that she was leaving me, despite all I had tried and done?....Finally, who could replace her?”
    Jan’s mother even offered her opinion. In an email in March 2009, she noted that Jan was fading while he had his life in front of him. “I am hopeful that you will find a woman with whom you can share your life,” Petersen’s mother-in-law wrote. “It would be good for you, and couldn’t possibly hurt Jan, who would never know or understand.”

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    Petersen also recounts a meeting with another friend who had a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s. They discussed the concept of a death of a marriage, and also noted that they didn’t feel married, widowed, single, separated or divorced. Instead, they come to the agreement that they were “persons of uncertain status.”

    Eventually, Petersen began a relationship with Mary Nell, although he did not divorce Jan, and moved to Denver. He also moved Jan to a nearby assisted living facility from the Seattle facility where she originally stayed to be close to her family. He still oversees Jan’s care, assisted by Mary Nell along with his daughters and granddaughters.  And Petersen bravely spoke about Jan as well as Mary Nell and their relationship in a CBS Sunday Morning segment.

    I had the chance to interview Petersen when the book was first released. His story and his complete openness about his challenges and decisions definitely affected me. That conversation had so much of an impact that, in fact, I’m one of the people who marked “Not Sure” on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room opinion poll. I honestly can see both sides of the arguement and strongly believe that the decision about starting a new relationship when faced with a spouse with Alzheimer’s needs to be a personal one.

Published On: September 19, 2011