The long goodbye


By Frank Wessling

Pat Robertson, host of the “700 Club” religious program on television, told viewers last week that Alzheimer’s dementia could be a reason for divorce and new life with a healthy spouse in another marriage.

By the time this is being read it’s possible that Robertson has reconsidered and changed the advice he gave a male questioner. But even if he now acknowledges a lapse of judgment, or a senior moment or episode of brain freeze, he has opened a topic that deserves attention.

We’re told that the next 30 years will see millions more Americans fall into Alzheimer’s as the Baby Boom generation moves into old age.

The spouses of those victims will face a challenge unlike anything they could have anticipated on the day they married, promising fidelity and love until parted by death.


As Robertson noted when he made his televised comments, the brain-altering disorder known as Alzheimer’s disease is “a kind of death.” That, he said, is why divorce would be OK for the relatively healthy husband — “but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”

Some cultures and religious traditions allow marriages to be dissolved for several reasons. Christianity has idealized the biblical norm of lifetime commitment, although the last century saw a steady, deep erosion in the practice of that ideal. Even the Catholic Church has had to recognize new psychological realities and allow the possibility that many persons who marry “in the Church” are incapable of doing what they promise.

So divorce — with second marriages, and sometimes more, following — has spread and become a common solution for all manner of marital trouble. Pat Robertson, raised and educated as a Southern Baptist and for many years a minister in that church, probably did not intend to boost the divorce rate. But he gave a utilitarian answer to his questioner rather than the response of a Christian believer – or even of a humanitarian.

Does he know much about Alzheimer’s? Patti Davis, youngest daughter of former President Ronald Reagan does, and she did not call it a kind of death. Rather, she saw her father through a “long goodbye.” The difference in language is significant. With death we seem left alone. In the long goodbye we come closer to the absolute as servants of love.

It is not completely ignorant to characterize Alzheimer’s as “a kind of death,” though, because much that was in a marriage will no longer be there as the condition arises and develops. Also, the sense of something dying is mutual, not one-sided. The partner with the condition suffers a gradual loss of control, can feel that loss keenly, and mourns it.

But the healthy partner has a choice. His or her experience of loss is also sharp, but it should not be completely new and devastating, as if a dying and rising of some kind — of ambition, hope, dreams, desire — had never happened in that person’s life. Alzheimer’s may be the loss of a dream or hope, but in that it differs little from the aborted dreams of an injured athlete or the political candidate shocked by losing an election he expected to win, or missing out on a promotion at work.

What Alzheimer’s takes away so often is the expected mutual enjoyment of the so-called golden years. The healthy partner’s challenge is to let that expectation die, mourn it appropriately, and pass on to the work of the long goodbye. The focus of that work is on how to make it loving all the way.

We don’t put aside the one most in need, both for her sake and ours. The financing of care can raise agnoizing questions that include the possibility of divorce as a legal technicality in order to protect assets. Still, no matter how that issue is handled, a real divorce, a real abandoning of love and caring presence, should be unthinkable. In so many way the long goodbye associated with Alzheimer’s is hard for a spouse and family. But if they accept this kind of death as part of life, they can be transformed into hardier lovers. They are not weak and sad, like the rich young man of Jesus’ parable whose money is more important than the promise of new life.

When the person who is our life companion no longer makes any sign of recognizing us, that person has given everything he or she can. This does not mean we have done as much in return.

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