Divorce, Alzheimer’s and Pat Robertson

So why is anything Pat Robertson says worth listening to? He has been spouting hateful nonsense for years– reliably blaming the latest natural disaster on the gays, the feminists, the pagans. He makes wack predictions about who is on God’s hit list, and the Lord continually fails to come through with tsunamis on the West Coast or nukes in Jerusalem. He has a worse track record than the Reverend Tillman Gandy Jr., who accurately predicted that we would all eventually die.

But unlike Rev.Gandy, who dressed to the nines as he exhorted on Westminster Mall in all seasons, Pat Robertson is a rich man and a political player. I regularly see his evil leprechaun face on the tube as I visit the elderly. His 700 Club mimics network news so closely that it is often indistinguishable from Fox– which is a paragon of journalistic excellence in comparison.

Robertson’s international meddling would be called out for what it is– pulling an end run around US diplomacy and playing with fire– except for one thing. He delivers the votes. He has a following.

Life is hard, unfair and complicated. You can deal with it in one of two ways. You can accept that we are all in the same boat and invested in bailing– or look for someone to blame until the Heavenly Coast Guard appears to rescue the worthy and drop a nuke on the floating sinners Left Behind. From my vantage point, as a provider of services to the disabled and elderly, Robertson’s simple narrative looks like a seductive con.

My clients and patients are those who are dealing with the very issues Robertson raised when he said that divorce would be an option for a man whose wife had Alzheimer’s disease. And my clients have shown me why Robertson is wrong on two counts. 1. Dementia is not death. 2. Divorce is not the answer.

I once worked in a nursing home where I cared for a woman who was unable to pick up a spoon to feed herself. I noticed her clear complexion and unlined face, the look of top-shelf plastic surgery. Someone told me she had been a Rockette. If not for dementia she would have been beautiful.

Every day her husband came in to feed her lunch. One day I heard him ask, “Do you know who I am?”
She struggled to remember.
“The handsome guy.”, she said.

Alzheimer’s is nothing to snark about– there’s no easy answers and we boomers are in the middle of this horrible epidemic. Some of us are seeing our parents fade away, others are suffering themselves, or watching their life partners lose their independence and abilities. William Saletan, at Slate.Com has a compassionate take on what Robertson really said, and meant, in his advice to the man whose wife was far advanced in dementia. I see Saletan’s point, but I don’t agree with Robertson’s advice.

Robertson, quoted by Saletan, says this–

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 and somebody looking after her—

There’s the catch. Unless you are on a level with Robertson and his high-rollers you do not reach retirement age with the resources to support long-term care for a disabled spouse while starting a new marriage. You and your spouse are tied legally and financially, this illness is a financial disaster. Good traditional wives who stayed at home with their families depend on their husband’s Social Security and Medicare, or Medicaide if they are low-income. Divorce is not just cutting loose from a conjugal relationship, it’s cutting off financial support.

Another catch is that Alzheimers is a cruel and unpredictable disease. While it may be true, as Robertson says, that the affected spouse has suffered a kind of death, they are very much alive. They can suffer. They can have moments of happiness. They can unexpectedly clear and be whole for a time. They are still human.

I have seen many spouses, partners, relatives and friends faithfully visit their loved ones in nursing homes and I want to say this–it really matters. Sick is not dead. Even if it seems the visit is forgotten in minutes it was the bright spot in a day of confusion and lostness. Love is never wasted.

If everyone who had a spouse with dementia took Pat Robertson’s advice, it would be a lonelier world for people adrift in illness. It would also be a financial mess for our health care system. Who would pick up the slack if healthy people decided to separate their affairs from their disabled spouses? The government, of course. The couple are probably already on Medicare, but this would add to the burden on state Medicaide, and raise questions as to who would be the power of attorney for health decisions. The kids, if there are kids, will not take this well. They are trying to get their own children through young adulthood and are not looking to take responsibility for their sick Mom so that Dad can marry his girlfriend.

I have a reality-based alternative to Robertson’s advice to seek a divorce and re-marriage.

Stay married. You vowed to stay faithful through sickness and in health. There’s reasons for this and it’s not about romance. It’s about survival. As our gay friends have been trying to explain for the last few years, marriage is a legal contract that gives recognition and protection to the couple who take those vows. In the course of life, the best we can hope for is to survive our parents. Marriage is our way of making a family for the rest of our lives. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health. We need that commitment.

Secondly, a pagan word of advice. Commit adultery.

I have seen husbands and wives visit their spouse daily, sometimes several times a day, when the loved one was unable to converse, or to do anything except appreciate that they were in the presence of someone who cared about them. There was no hope of recovery, this was devotion in the long haul. The able partner faithfully gave what was needed.

I don’t think a person in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s needs their spouse to sit alone at night. They need them to visit during the day. That’s no small thing.

Robertson’s idea that it satisfies morality to cut loose from a disabled spouse so you can marry someone else doesn’t match up with reality. A disabled person in the medical system needs an advocate and defender. They need someone who has the authority to speak up for their interests. Again, this is one of the reasons gay people want the right to full legal marriage. Children, friends and social workers might care, but no one else has the power that a marriage partner has. Keeping faith may not be about sex anymore, but that connection is a lifeline, sometimes literally.

I don’t think that ‘handsome guy’, who was not young himself, was spending his evenings cruising for chicks. I hope he had old friends, family and companions to help him through the loss of his wife. It’s cruel when the loss is by inches. He probably needed some care, himself.

The forecast is that a silver tsunami is approaching, and these troubles will get worse. Retirement expectations have diminished with this bad economy, maintaining one household is going to be a challenge, never mind two. It’s a good idea to withhold judgement on how couples manage their changing relationships, and focus on the essentials. How they keep faith is an individual thing. But that they must keep faith is clear. There’s no one else to pick up the slack.

2 thoughts on “Divorce, Alzheimer’s and Pat Robertson

  1. I have to say I agree with the Pagan solution.
    My dad’s parents were married for 60 years.
    My grandma developed Alzheimers at age 74 shortly after an enucleation for melanoma of the eye-she became unmanageable at home,climbing down the fire escape(she was very spry)to “escape”at times.
    She spent about 6 years in a nursing home at a time when the costs were sane.The whole family chipped in.
    Now my grandpa was never a paragon of virtue when it came to being monogamous but he was still a loving husband in his own way.Near the end,she couldn’t recognize him at all and was afraid when he went in her room(he was never abusive,she just didn’t know him anymore)and she died not knowing who anyone was.
    He went on to remarry a 67 year old woman(he was 85,but lied about his age,saying he was 75 since they didn’t have a legal wedding,just a religious one, she didn’t get to see his real age.
    He died at 93.
    Robertson is out to lunch on this-if they get divorced,how would the spouse REALLY be supported?
    Better off to stay married and have a relationship with someone understanding of the situation.

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