Supreme Court Justice Knows It Is Best to Let Alzheimer's Patients Forget the Past

Should Alzheimer's patients be allowed to forget the past and have new lives?


Nov. 13, 2007— -- Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has been happily married to her law school sweetheart, John O'Connor, since 1952.

John O'Connor has Alzheimer's disease and lives in a Phoenix home care facility, where he has found a new girlfriend.

Speaking to a Phoenix TV station this week, O'Connor's son, Scott, described his father as acting "like a teenager in love" and says his mother is happy for him.

Unusual as that sounds, doctors say the O'Connors' situation is not uncommon.

Dr. Walter Fanburg at Arbor Place Dementia Care says, "The idea that [Justice O'Connor] is comfortable with her husband being comfortable in another relationship is terrific."

"Handholding, kissing, hugging -- that happens a lot," says Fanburg, "I've seen relationships go from handholding, hugging and kissing to real sexual relationships."

There is a complicated ethical dimension to this disease that the former justice inevitably experienced. Think of it this way: How enforceable is the lifelong contract of marriage for someone who doesn't remember the marriage?

Though Alzheimer's disease slowly ravages the memories, patients' lives must go on. Unfortunately, for the families and loved ones of those suffering from Alzheimer's, understanding the disease and accepting its consequences are two different matters.

Click here to send in a question about living with Alzheimer's disease.

A Hollywood movie "Away From Her" grapples with this dilemma. Actress Julie Christie plays a married Alzheimer's patient who, much to her partner's chagrin, befriends another married patient.

Edna Roseman, who is an Alzheimer's patient, lost her husband several years ago and met someone new at the home-care facility where she lives.

Her daughter says, "I believe that it is a good thing for her and it is kind of an amusing thing for the family. 'Cause if you don't laugh, you are going to cry. So you might as well laugh."

Alzheimer's patients have no choice but to gradually let go of the past. For their families it is heartbreaking to watch. But doctors say the kindest thing families can do is to let go of the past.

"You can only live for now," Fanburg says. "We can give people a good quality of life right now. They might not remember it five minutes from now, but while they're doing it they're happy."

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