The New Romance for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's Husband
The recent movie, Away from Her, features a key plot twist in which Fiona, the main character who has dementia, forms a romantic attachment with another resident at the assisted living facility after forgetting her husband. The hard part is that her husband, Grant, watches discreetly from a table in the dining room as Fiona's new attachment with the other resident is forged.
Much as we would like to believe this situation is fictional, it happens fairly regularly as memories of married life dwindle away for a person who has dementia. Case in point - USA Today reports that John O'Connor, 77, who has Alzheimer's disease, has formed a new romance with a fellow resident at the Alzheimer's facility where he lives.
His wife, retired Supreme Court Justic Sandra Day O'Connor, reportedly has come to terms with his husband's new girlfriend. The couple's oldest son, Scott, is quoted in the article as saying, "For Mom to visit when he's happy...visiting with his girlfriend, sitting on the porch swing holding hands" proved to be a relief after a painful period in John's battle with this disease.
Alzheimer's is a painful disease to watch as it attacks a loved one's mind. Your loved one changes in so many ways that are unimaginable. As the partner who does not have this disease, you have to decide what you truly are able to do as your loved one changes; unfortunately, it may not be as much as we might wish. Although my mom never developed an actual romance, I did learn a few important lessons while caring for her. These include:
- You can't stop the memory loss, nor decide what memories the loved one is going to keep. My mom at one point in August thought she was in love with "Bruce," who I think was a fictional character (or possibly someone from her past). Nevertheless, she completely forgot she was married to my father, and was pining away for Bruce one afternoon when I visited.
- You can't control the actions of a loved one with Alzheimer's. By trying to bring the loved one "back to reality," you risk an explosive reaction. And even if you bring them to some semblence of reality on one day, often all will be forgotten the next day. This can take a heavy toll not only on the loved one, but also on you as a caregiver.
So what can you control? The only piece of this equation that you have any will over is your own actions and reactions. But first you have to decide what you ultimately want, and what is best for your loved one. I especially applaud Justice O'Connor for thinking deeply about what she wanted for her husband. According to the son's quote, she wants John to be happy. In the story, Scott is reported saying, "Mom was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy and comfortable here and wasn't complaining."
Having your loved one who has Alzheimer's forget everything is difficult in itself, but finding that they are attracted to someone else can be devastating for the partner who doesn't have the disease. The challenge that the family members and friends face is coming to terms with the full meaning of the diagnosis and then providing the loved one with enough room to live the life that they now have because of Alzheimer's.
I salute Justice O'Connor for being willing to love her husband enough to help him through this difficult time as his dementia progresses and his memory of their marriage vanishes. I know it's hard for her, but I think she is showing the ultimate love for John in the way she is responding to his new romance.