Patt Morrison for September 20, 2011

Is Alzheimer’s the exception to “till death do us part"?

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Alzheimer's affects some five million Americans, but beyond that, their loved ones and caregivers must find a way to live with the disease's ravages.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested on his TV show “700 Club” last week that a man whose wife is “gone” with Alzheimer’s should divorce her if he needs companionship.

Robertson was responding to a caller who said she had a friend whose wife no longer knew who he was, so the friend had started seeing another woman. Instead of condemning the affair, Robertson said, “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, somebody looking after her.” When the caller asked if divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s was consistent with the marriage vow “till death do us part,” Robertson stated that Alzheimer’s was “a kind of death.”

CBS senior correspondent Barry Peterson agrees with Robertson. Peterson’s wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 55 and has since been moved into a nursing home. While he has not divorced his wife, Peterson has a romantic relationship with another woman, who helps him oversee the care of his wife. Peterson sees Robertson’s comments as humane and thoughtful.

Joni Eareckson Tada, founder and CEO of the conservative Christian Joni and Friends International Disability Center, does not. Tada, who is a quadriplegic, has been married for nearly thirty years. Tada, who describes “the life of the cross as that of sacrifice and service,” finds Robertson’s remarks dangerous. She says that marriage and disability is hard enough and that a religious leader like Robertson should not suggest that devotion is an option. Peterson and Tada join Patt to discuss this delicate issue.

Is Alzheimer’s or dementia an exception to the marriage vows “in sickness and in health” and “till death do us part”? Is it possible that both the care-giving spouse and Alzheimer’s patient are better off if the care-giving spouse remarries? Or is that putting the well partner’s needs above the Alzheimer’s patient’s?

Some Alzheimer’s experts say that there can be many good years after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and, even when the patient has no memory, the patient can still derive comfort from being with loved ones. Is it “Christian” to divorce a spouse who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia? Or are marriage vows specifically made to protect against such an action?

Guests:

Barry Petersen, senior correspondent, CBS News; author of Jan's Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer's

Joni Eareckson Tada, founder and CEO, Joni and Friends International Disability Center; author of 46 books, most recently A Place of Healing; host, The Joni and Friends Radio Program

Sandra Weintraub, Ph.D., neuropsychologist and professor of neurology, Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine


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