When Tami Reeves met her now-husband, Eric, through an online dating site, he told her within 20 minutes that he was still married and had been for 29 years. He also told her that his wife, Gaye, was living in a nursing home after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Gaye no longer recognized him or other family members.
Tami, a nurse, instantly felt compassion for Eric. “His heart was breaking right in front of me, and I thought, ‘this man needs taking care of,’” she says. “If I had thought about it more, I probably would have run the other way, but the nurse in me kicked in and I admired his love and devotion to Gaye.”
Looking for love and support
Tami eventually wrote a memoir, “Bleeding Hearts,” about their experiences. “I want people to know that it’s OK to seek a support partner like Eric did, and it’s OK to be that support partner,” she explains.
Eric never abandoned Gaye and was there for her every step of the way, but he was torn between his love for his wife and the need to move on with his own life. “He wouldn’t have divorced Gaye,” Tami adds. “He believes in till death do us part, and I wouldn’t have asked him to divorce her.”
Eric’s family was mostly supportive of his attempts to forge a new relationship, and his daughter was actually the one who put his profile on the dating website. But friends were more judgmental: They were appalled that he was starting a new relationship while his wife was still alive, even if she didn’t recognize him anymore.
“Other people can make you feel ashamed of needing someone else, but I don’t think you should be judged for how you grieve, and Eric was grieving,” Tami says.
From the beginning of their relationship, Tami acted as a support partner for Eric and eventually even for Gaye. “I would visit Gaye toward the end of her life when it was too difficult for family members to do that. And I developed a love for her,” she recalls.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Tami, either. Nursing home staff members often whispered behind her back and gave her dirty looks, she remembers. And her friends questioned whether she was dating Eric because she wanted someone to love or someone to take care of. “Later, I realized that was part of my attraction to Eric,” Tami says. “Being a nurse is who I am, and it fulfills me.”
More caregivers are reaching out
This scenario is likely to become more and more common until a cure is found for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of “Snap Strategies for Couples: 40 Fast Fixes for Everyday Relationship Pitfalls.”
Currently, more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a number that could reach 16 million by the year 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. About 200,000 have early-onset disease, and two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are women.
“We are living longer and longer thanks to miracle drugs, so the chances of having this experience or being exposed to it through others is increasingly common,” she says. Because of that, Schwartz has noticed that some of the outrage over a caregiver seeking a new partner that was prevalent a decade ago has died down.
Relationship advice from an expert
Schwartz offers these tips if you are the other woman (or man) in one of these relationships:
- Find out how the extended family feels about your dating arrangement. “It makes all the difference in the world if the family is sympathetic, as in Tami’s story,” Schwartz says. “They may realize that the spouse isn’t with them anymore and that the caregiver is lonely and sad.” But Schwartz cautions that reactions from friends and family are not predictable. “You could be seen as a savior — or a sinner. They may think that dating you is an insult to their parent’s memory.”
Determine whether the person has moved on emotionally from the marriage. “If he has one or two pictures of his wife scattered around the house, that’s OK,” Schwartz says. “But if there are pictures in every room, that’s a red flag that he is still feeling guilty or is attached in a way that can’t take in your feelings.”
Consider if he or she is holding back from introducing you to family and friends once your relationship has turned serious. “You don’t want to push to meet them too soon, because that could be disruptive, and you don’t have to hang out with them,” Schwartz says, “but you want to meet them so you’re not a nonperson to his (or her) children and friends.”
Analyze whether you can deal with the fact that the person isn’t divorced and is still in a relationship with a spouse. “If you are jealous, insecure, or territorial, a relationship like this may not be a good fit for you,” Schwartz says. “Don’t try to be someone you’re not.”