Every day around 2 pm, Bob took a short stroll to the coffee shop down the street from where he and his wife of 47 years lived. At first, I thought it strange that he came every single afternoon without fail, even in rainy weather, all by himself. When the other regulars at the diner inquired, he replied that "she was fine" without further explanation. Everyone nodded silently, and the conversation continued on about football, the recent crime wave on the news or the upcoming elections. He never wanted more than a cup of coffee, and after 20 minutes, he walked home again.
Later, one of his friends filled me in: Bob’s lovely wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he was her sole caretaker. Anyone who is familiar with this devastating condition can understand how difficult it must be for him to struggle with a loved one’s diminishing mental and physical abilities. Alzheimer’s patients experience varying degrees of impairment, but the disorientation and irrational thoughts can cause them to be panicked, lash out physically or repeat, repeat, repeat the same question. Dangerous behaviors put both them and their caretakers at risk.
Bob took care of his wife 24 hours a day, all by himself. He once confided that he was tired to the bone. And lonely. There was nothing he could do about the disease that was causing his wife’s brain to waste away, but his loneliness for now could be eased by a cup of coffee and some chit chat during his much-anticipated afternoon break during her nap.
Is she the same woman he married?
Bob didn't say he ever considered divorce. Their marriage was fulfilling when she was her old self, that was sure. But today, her state of mind was of a different person’s. Many people would consider that reason to, if not abandon her to a care facility, at least enough to move onto new relationships. His family had suggested it. They feared for his own well-being.
What about “in sickness and in health?”
Bob’s circumstances are not unique. A burgeoning senior population means that many long-married couples are having to care for a spouse stricken with age-related conditions. What about other marriages affected by serious health conditions?
One of my mother’s friends received divorce papers from her husband after she was diagnosed with cancer. He said he couldn’t handle “going through all that.” Another man wrote to me explaining why he needed to have an affair. “I’m trying to save my marriage,” he said. His wife had a chronic illness and physical intimacy was impossible. He didn’t want to divorce her but couldn’t think of another way to fulfill his needs. How far does marital devotion and commitment go?
In the Nicholas Sparks’ book, “The Notebook,” an elderly husband lovingly cared for his Alz-affected wife, and I think every wife in the world was moved by his daily devotion expressed by his reading the story of their courtship. When their children begged him to come home with them because “she doesn’t know you,” he replied, “But I know her.” It epitomized the kind of marital commitment we all yearn for. But alas, in real life, our humanness and the daily struggle lack the romance of Hollywood endings.
What do you think?
Do you think that under these circumstances, Bob should…
a) …remain steadfast to the end. Truly live his marriage for better or for worse, in sickness and in health?
b) …find solace in family and friends?
c) …consider meeting other lonely seniors who are caretakers for their seriously ill spouses?
d) …place her in a care facility and file for divorce?
e) …continue to take care of her but find a female friend to cure his loneliness?
What would you do? Article Series
We made promises to stay married “for better or for worse” but who knew what life would throw our way when we made those well-intentioned vows? In this article series, real life marriages are tested in unexpected ways. What would you do? Should this marriage be saved? Share your thoughts with us in the Bellaonline Marriage forum.