Long time televangelist and host of the 700 club Pat Robertson stunned loyal Christian viewers, the public and highly angered doctors specializing in the disease when he advised the friend of a man, who wrote into the show, stating pointedly that he should be allowed to see other people because the woman, wife he knew was essentially gone. Roberson’s response, that if the man was going to do anything, he should get a divorce. Enter the shock and outrage that someone so well-respected, known both to the faith and the world would say such a thing; doctors were upset by the comments saying those memories attached to an emotional connection, bond, like marriage, are the last to go. Further illuminating that Alzheimer’s sufferers who have family support, friends and familiar emotional stimuli do better, decline slower than those who have no one. News outlets covering both Roberson’s comments as well as profiling those with Alzheimer’s, how they and their family’s coped, found one elderly husband that curls up every night in bed with his wife in the care facility she resides along with others who found different solutions to dealing with this devastating disease. A few years ago news outlets profiled a man whose wife was combatting the disease and encouraged him to get a girlfriend; he did and both he and her are great supports to his wife. It seemed to do her good knowing he wasn’t alone, not getting his needs met, being miserable as he was burdened with caring for someone slowly losing parts of herself. While Robertson would no doubt disagree with the choices in the older profile, it drives home another thing doctors highlighted the need for, talking to your loved one long before you find yourself in this situation, knowing what they would want so you can act accordingly and make the best out of a tragedy.

However controversial the sound bite, Robertson was not advocating the abandonment of a spouse or any loved one with Alzheimer’s disease; in fact his caveat to the counsel given to the viewer was to make sure she had care and support in place first and foremost. Neither was he trying to set a precedent of it’s ok to abandon such people the moment you get a diagnosis, or that it be the first thing you think of when receiving said diagnosis; he was giving advice to one person in one situation, someone who was essentially contemplating cheating on their wife. And in that case he said it would be better for him to divorce her if he was going to do anything, because divorce isn’t a sin, cheating is. Additionally that’s a big if, considering the admonishment given, the man may decide to stay with his wife; if he doesn’t at least now he has some guidance on the moral way to deal with his needs. Because, like it or not, chronic, prolonged or terminal illnesses bring tremendous stress to a marriage, and we don’t live in a perfect nor ideal world, some marriages are under more stain than others. Throwing in the elements of any disease can simply be too much for it to survive especially this type of disease. Particularly poignant due to the fact a person does change so drastically; depression, anger, fear, hopelessness, anxiety, reevaluation of life and priorities are all expected sensations, emotions, actions when dealing with a chronic or terminal illness, yet they take on a whole new meaning in grappling with this and other forms of dementia, mental decay, decline. Due in part to the reality, it becomes so much bigger than missed birthdays, anniversaries, a wonderful dish she no longer knows how to cook, one minute they’re fine you’re talking about dinner or the time you went to such and such place, the next they’re asking who are you, confusing you with an old flame, someone they knew from school. They could panic about where they are, think it’s a completely different year. A-the moment you were having is ruined, B- you now have to handle the frantic mess in front of you.

For men it can be particularly devastating on two fronts, one embodied in the old saying women marry a man thinking she can change him; men marry a women thinking they will never change, both misnomers. Men do not do well with change, notably changes of that magnitude in their personal lives, as they depend on their wives for continuity and support. Secondly, the last thing a man wants to hear about is an old flame, the guy his wife dated in high school, others she’s been intimate with, if there was any kind of rivalry between best friends over the woman now his wife, he doesn’t want to be reminded of that, mistaken for another, and yes mentally, rationally you understand they don’t know what they’re saying, they can help it. Still inside your heart is breaking. Then there is the practical side of it; someone who no longer drives forgets that and gets behind the wheel sans license, whatever their profession was, they get up like they’re going to work or get it in their head that’s where they should be, next you get a call your wife is at a police station for trying to get into X building, trespassing, disturbing the peace, there can be violent outbursts. Returning to the viewer seeking answers, seeing as he described the wife and woman he knew in terms of already being gone, not profoundly effected, not totally different, all common responses, but gone likely says she is in final stages of the disease, no longer recognizes him or lives in the reality of her past, mostly unaware of her present. We, looking at a glimpse, don’t know how many years he has been caring for her, how long he’s watched this go on, how many times he’s tried to enjoy a rare moment when he can almost forget her mind is fading only to be snapped back into that horrible reality by some rendition of the scenario at the bottom of the above paragraph; they don’t call it the long goodbye to be poetic.

Bringing the obvious question of where does that leave him, not a callous question, only a real one, except with an individual, nothing like who he married, a burden in the form of a person he too does not recognize, only occasionally remembers their life together, if at all. And during some stage in all that is happening, the other half of a married couple be it husband or wife will, however slowly, come to the conclusion, revelation that they aren’t sick, they are still alive, still functional, and seeing what is transpiring in front of them, makes them to want to live their life to the fullest all the more. Whether this happens chatting with a colleague from work, whether it happens striking up a conversation with a complete stranger, suddenly spouses remember what it’s like to have a simple conversation, simple interaction with someone that is coherent and not a doctor talking about the endless ins and outs of their loved one’s disease. If the person they run into, work with behaves anything like their spouse once did, it kindles a longing, for normalcy, not necessarily a relationship, for quality of life outside of what their loved one is going through if not some sultry affair. It’s human nature, quite normal. Further people afflicted with Alzheimer’s either end up in care facilities or require massive amounts of 24/7 care at home the matter is not if but when. At certain points there becomes a significant limit to what you can do for your loved one, be that because of working to keep up with medical bills, having to drive a distance to see them in the care facility that is right for them or simply because it’s too hard to go see them, look on a face you once loved and they no longer remember you, no longer remember the special moments you shared. That is how this man arrived at his conclusion; he should likewise be given more respect than he was for having the moral compass to ask what he should do, rather than just doing it, justifying his actions by saying my wife has Alzheimer’s.

Going back to Pat Robertson, another thing that got swallowed it in a sound bite, marred in a salacious headline is the remainder of the advice; on top of telling the viewer to make sure his wife had the proper care, he told them to get help, support not to do this alone. In those few but important sentences the meaning and intent was so much more than “your wife has Alzheimer’s, yeah go ahead and divorce her rather than sleep around,” which is was the way it was taken by the world. Continuing here was a man already contemplating doing something wrong, action was inevitable, Robertson just tried to steer him toward a morally upright action as opposed to a morally depraved one. Also to be kept in mind is he answered the question in the time allotted to what is usually the end of the show time filler or a segment of giving advice, not to be confused with hidden tapes of a counseling session, series of them where he possessed both the freedom and responsibility to simultaneously get to know this man, his situation and his character while giving him in-depth direction. Neither was this man indicated as a member of Mr. Robertson’s congregation or a partner in the television ministry, giving financially as many loyal viewers become, lessening the pastor’s responsibility to him. Yes the world was listening, we know that and no doubt so did he, but instead of spinning what he said negatively, it can be interpreted on a broader level for everyone as, this happening to you, consider divorce as opposed to cheating, flirting with moral danger, get counseling and support for dealing with your loved ones Alzheimer’s, then make the choice that’s right for all parties involved.

Lastly, independent of religious affiliation, people have to do what’s right for them; sometimes getting a divorce and walking away, while unconscionable to others, makes an individual a better person when they are no longer daily confronted with this particular heartbreak. Getting a divorce being able to go out and have a conversation with whomever, possibly date, without feeling like or being labeled a cheater can mean you are in far better spirits when you go see, your now ex, wife in a facility, you are better able to deal with who she is now, owing to the fact your whole life is no longer consumed with their disease, the emotional baggage isn’t there, even if the financial and paperwork hassles still are. Because just as having positive support can aid the afflicted person, surely negative emotions, angry outbursts, obvious resentment, someone just going through the motions is going to have an undesirable effect on the sufferer. Others their spouse would not want them to be tied to them in such a state, they love them enough to want them to live their life even if they couldn’t or couldn’t be with them. Similar to end of life issues, it is part of why discussing these kinds of situations and decisions when the person is well and lucid, capable of telling you what they would want from you, what they would want you to do, so you have the security of that knowledge to accompany your moral convictions.