The televangelist Pat Robertson’s suggestion that a man whose wife was far “gone” with Alzheimer’s should divorce her if he felt a need for new companionship has provoked a storm of condemnation from other Christian leaders but a more mixed or even understanding response from some doctors and patient advocates.
On his television show, “The 700 Club,” Mr. Robertson, a prominent evangelical who once ran for president, took a call from a man who asking how he should advise a friend whose wife was deep into dementia and no longer recognized him…
“This is a terribly hard thing,” Mr. Robertson said, clearly struggling to think his way through a wrenching situation. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things, because here’s the loved one — this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone “
“I know it sounds cruel,” he continued, “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 Mr. Robertson’s co-anchor on the show wondered if that was consistent with marriage vows, Mr. Robertson noted the pledge of “’til death do us part,” but added, “This is a kind of death.”
He said the question presented an ethical dilemma beyond his ability to answer. “I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt trip on you if you decided that you had to have companionship, you’re lonely, you have to have companionship,” Mr. Robertson said.
The reaction from many evangelical leaders, who see lifelong, traditional marriage as the cornerstone of morality and society, was harsh and disbelieving…
Dr. James E. Galvin, a neurologist who runs a dementia clinic at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, said it was wrong to say that people with Alzheimer’s were “gone,” or to call its late stages “a kind of death.”
“While it’s true that in terminal phases, patients may not be fully aware of what’s going on, they tend to recognize the people who are closest to them,” Dr. Galvin said.
With good care, people may live 15 to 20 years with the disease, most of that time at home, Dr. Galvin said. If they eventually move to a nursing home and seem unaware of what is going on around them, he said, then spouses face “an individualized decision” about when and how to develop new relationships…
I doubt if ever before have I come close to agreeing with Pat Robertson on anything. I think he probably gets the seasons and sunrise wrong. Still, this is a question that he has answered as a man of conscience, willing to take that question beyond the accepted constraints of his fundamentalist brethren. I give him credit for that.
I haven’t much experience with Alzheimer’s. I only recall one relative who seemed to be in early stages of senile dementia – when I was a young man and she was already in her 60’s. But, Robertson’s answer is one of the answers that someone might legitimately consider in the context of advanced Alzheimer’s when to all intents and purposes you are unrecognizable to the patient.
It will be a terrible quandary – you must include your whole life’s experience together and yet look ahead to a life that can be painfully distant even when together. My snap judgement would be to stay together. But, I can see a context wherein divorce might be the sound decision.