THE BLOG

Alzheimer's Caregivers: What to Do When Your Spouse Finds a New Love

02/12/2015 06:54 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Beth was sitting in the nursing home room of her spouse, Bernie, waiting for him to return from lunch. You can imagine her surprise when he walked in holding hands with a woman who lived in the facility. The pain was searing and she hardly knew how to react as the two sat down beside each other on the sofa, still holding hands. The pain was worse still when they smooched.

Let me say right up front that this is going to be a controversial article and that some may find the suggestions I'll make objectionable. But the fact is that sometimes people with Alzheimer's find a new love interest.

If this happens to you it will probably be one of the most painful situations you will ever face. It's right up there with your loved one not recognizing you anymore and with engaging hospice care near the end of their life.

Perhaps the most well-known and admired person to find herself in this situation was Sandra Day O'Connor. She retired from the Supreme Court to care for her husband who had developed Alzheimer's.

According to a report in USA Today he found a new romance, referred to only as "Kay." Although I don't believe O'Connor ever commented publicly on the issue, her oldest son, Scott, did. According to the article:

"Scott compared his father to 'a teenager in love' and said, 'For Mom to visit when he's happy . . . visiting with his girlfriend, sitting on the porch swing holding hands,' was a relief after a painful period. She was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy."

Justice O'Connor is to be commended indeed for attaining this level of acceptance of the difficult situation. It's something many spouses are never able to do.

I had some experience with this type of thing when Ed, my Romanian life partner of 30 years, had dementia and was living in a nursing home. He didn't exactly find a new love but he flirted shamelessly with nearly every staff person in the place.

For example, as I recount in my uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, one day he told the receptionist, "You're the most beautiful woman in the world. And I mean it from my heart. It's not just words from my mouth."

I suppose I could have resented that. But, on the contrary, I was happy he was enjoying himself so much.

One of the most controversial articles ever published on the Alzheimer's Reading Room dealt with this very topic. There were 32 comments at the end of the article, ranging from people (mostly women) who said they'd never be able to accept this to ones who said it had happened to them and they were happy that their spouse had found joy in being with a new person.

One woman commented that the issue made her sick to her stomach. She continued, "If he starts a relationship in the care facility I will still meet all the legal responsibilities but I will not visit him and our relationship will be purely business."

Contrast that with the following comment about her husband made by another reader. "It makes me happy to see him happily sitting or walking holding hands with his new girlfriend. I know they can have opportunities for warmth and comfort many times in a day."

My comments on the article drew sharp anger from some of the readers. I wrote,

"When a person has dementia they may do many things they never would have done before. Therefore, it's the dementia that's making them do it. In other words your duty isn't a matter of forgiveness - it's a matter of true acceptance and of putting the loved one's feeling and needs before our own. And being happy to see they are happy."

One woman responded, "It feels as though you are beating a dead horse. As I said, some of us just can't do it and I'm one of them."

Another lady angrily wrote - referring to Justice O'Connor - "But that Supreme Court Justice . . . has no moral backbone."

If you find yourself in this situation you may not be able to accept it or it may take months or even years to do so. And that's certainly understandable. But if you can go with the flow and be happy that your spouse is happy you will be far less stressed and more contented with your spouse and his or her new-found pleasure. Ultimately, it will dramatically improve your quality of life.

Has anyone ever been in this situation? If so how did you handle it?

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer's caregivers.