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.
There are about 10 million people in the U.S. -- mostly women – who have chosen to take care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a grueling job in itself, but many aren’t only caregiving. They’re also raising kids of their own -- and maybe working – at the same time.
“You’re already a parent to your children, and then suddenly you have to become a caregiver to your parent,” says Donna Schempp, LCSW, program director at the Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco. “It’s very hard to...
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
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
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.