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The Emotional Toll of Alzheimer's

When Alzheimer's patients build new bonds in a nursing home, it can have a serious impact on a family.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The Oscar-nominated movie Away from Her portrays a long-married couple struggling with Alzheimer's disease and the emotional toll it causes when the wife, played by actress Julie Christie, gives her affection to another man whom she meets in a nursing home.

This heart-wrenching and emotional dramatization of Alzheimer's brings home the difficulties families face when a person's ability to recognize and maintain relationships gradually declines -- especially when the relationship is between a husband and wife.

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This scenario becomes even more complicated when a person with Alzheimer's is placed in a nursing home, and amidst the confusion and loss of memory, finds new companionship with someone other than his her or spouse.

"One of the challenges of Alzheimer's is that it will cause a person to lose the ability to recognize their loved ones, including their spouse," says Peter Reed, MD, senior director of programs for the Alzheimer Association. "Once that recognition is gone, it can be very difficult for both the patient and the family."

Experts offer WebMD insight into the minds of Alzheimer's patients who build new bonds in a nursing-home setting with a person of the opposite sex, what those connections can mean, how Alzheimer's affects families, including spouses and children, and how they can cope with a disease that takes their loved ones away from them.

Alzheimer's and New Bonds in a Nursing Home

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. It's a condition that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Alzheimer's ultimately affects a person's ability to work, engage in normal everyday activities, and maintain relationships.

So how can it happen, that two people with Alzheimer's connect at an emotional level?

Richard Powers, MD, chairman of the medical advisory board of the Alzheimer's Foundation, says that while it's doesn't happen all the time, "it's common enough that we need to be able to deal with it in a thoughtful and compassionate way."

Powers describes it as waking up in a strange location, where you don't know anyone, and you can't understand your surroundings, and maybe, even the language the people around you are speaking. If you meet someone else who speaks the same language, someone who seems to be as lost as you are, wouldn't you form a bond with this person, as two strangers in a foreign land?

"Alzheimer's patients, even in the nursing-home setting, based on my observation of their behavior, continue to search for companionship and friendship," says Powers, associate professor or pathology and neurology at the University of Alabama.

But is it just companionship and friendship they're looking for, or could it be love?

Powers explains that when two healthy people fall in love, they know who they are, and who the other person is; each individual is able to access all the chronological information in their lives and make a decision about whether he or she is emotionally devoted to the other person.

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