Sept. 15, 2011 -- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson stunned "700 Club" viewers Tuesday when he said divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease was justified.
Robertson, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and former Republican presidential candidate, said he wouldn't "put a guilt trip" on someone for divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease, calling Alzheimer's itself "a kind of death."
"I'm just flabbergasted," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 15,000 member Northland Church in Orlando, Fla. "I just don't know how anyone who is reading Scripture or is even familiar with the traditional wedding vows can come out with a statement like that. Obviously, we can all rationalize the legitimacy for our own comfort that would somehow make it OK to divorce our spouse if circumstances become very different or inconvenient. ... That's almost universal, but there's just no way you can get out of what Jesus says about marriage."
Hunter, who is also a presidential appointee to an advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, said Robertson's words could lead people to interpret typical marital woes as proof that the spouse they married is symbolically dead, and they are therefore free to move on.
"Obviously, you could do this for anything. ... My husband watches and plays video games, and so he has left the marriage and it's kind of like a death," he said. "It's not death, and so we can't start describing things as death that are really not death, and we have to stop trying to mischaracterize what Scripture says for our own convenience."
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that calls for faithfulness in the best of times and the worst of times. Quoting Corinthians, Anderson said, "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. You can't quit your own body with Alzheimer's, so you shouldn't quit your husband's or wife's body either."
Doctors and social workers who work with families affected by Alzheimer's disease were similarly dismissive of Robertson's advice.
"To condone abandoning one's spouse in the throes of this mind-robbing illness is absurd," said Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer's Center in Tampa. "While Alzheimer's certainly affects the dynamic of relationships, marriage vows are taken in sickness and in health."
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease – a figure expected to rise sharply as baby boomers enter their older years. And about 80 percent of Alzheimer patients who live at home are cared for by family members.
Robertson's comments came after a viewer asked what advice he should give a friend who had been seeing another woman since his wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson said.
But the Rev. A.D. Baxter, a social worker with Cole Neuroscience Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said care from a loved one is irreplaceable.
"When being cared for by a spouse, the love of that spouse is often what enables a person with Alzheimer's disease to continue on and not feel abandoned," said Baxter, adding that caregivers need support, too. "Many believe a true friend does not abandon in the time of need."
Alzheimer's Strains Relationships
The progressive symptoms of Alzheimer's can put stress on relationships, leaving caregivers to cope with the loss of intimacy and other aspects of adult romantic relationships, said Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics and assistant director of the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia.
"There's no question that this is an issue," said Karlawish. "But to a spouse who's struggling with this kind of issue, I would want to say after the patient has left this world, you want be able to look back and say you treated that person with dignity."
Zaven Khachaturian, president of the Maryland-based Campaign to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease by 2020, said that Robertson's logic could have parents abandoning newborn babies.
"After all, a newborn presents to the caregiver exactly the same set of caregiver burden," said Khachaturian. "Both the infant and the person with Alzheimer's must be fed, cleansed, they are highly emotional, sleep a lot, they have wrinkled skins. If neglected, they will die. Does this mean caregivers must abandon newborn infants because it is not convenient to take care of them?"
New technologies are making it possible to diagnose Alzheimer's disease earlier, while patients have the ability to understand the road ahead of them.
"I think this highlights the need for couples and families to have discussions early in any illness, and preferably before illness strikes so that person's decisions and preferences are known and respected," said David Loewenstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
Robertson's advice was for a male caregiver. But sometimes it's the patient who wants to start a new relationship.
"I have seen both caregivers and patients enter into new relationships during the course of dementia. How they choose to handle it is up to them. All parties dealing with this disease suffer to some extent and deserve to find happiness," said USF's Smith. "Ultimately, the decision for any couple to divorce, for any reason, is a private and difficult one."
Some couples stay married but form new relationships, too.
"There are many spouses who are devoted to the affected person with Alzheimer's, and yet form new relationships as they also care for their spouse," said Sandra Weintraub, professor of neurology and a neuropsychologist at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "It's hard to negotiate living with Alzheimer's disease but dictating what's good and bad is not useful.
"Every person needs to make their own decisions and to consider all parties involved. I sincerely hope the good reverend never has to have Alzheimer's to experience his advice first hand."
Tim King, spokesman for the Christian organization Sojourners, said Robertson's controversial statement was encouraging in at least one regard.
"I'm actually encouraged to hear someone like Pat Robertson say we're not really in a position to judge another person," King said. "I can't imagine the difficulty that a spouse would have to see someone go through that type of change and transformation. ... I don't know anyone who is in the position to judge another type of person who is having to make those type of decisions. It should never be taking lightly; it should never be an easy decision. Dealing with marriage is serious and making a big decision like that should be hard."
A representative for Robertson's network told the Associated Press that there would be no further comment on the matter.