Love in the Time of Dementia

Love in the Time of Dementia

In a New York Times story, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, has a romance with another woman, and the former Justice is thrilled. She visits with the new couple while they hold hands on the porch swing. It’s a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content.

We’re completely conditioned to think of love as being about young people

Songs, movies, literature and most of all, the media, show us beautiful young people in love. Who, after all, wants to see old people falling in love? The O’Connor story, reported by the couple’s son from Arizona, where Mr. O’Connor lives in an assisted-living center. It opens a window into what might be called “old love”.

We’re rewriting, rethinking the rules as we live longer than previous generations

The O’Connors’ story illuminates the relationships that are not uncommon among Alzheimer’s patients. The desire for intimacy persists even as dementia steals their memories. People still feel the need to be close to someone. But Justice O’Connor’s reaction revealed a model for a time when people are living longer and loving longer.

“This is right up there in terms of the cutting-edge ethical and cultural issues of late-life love,” said Thomas R. Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas, and author of a cultural history of aging. “We need moral exemplars to help us identify ways of being in love when you’re older.” As life expectancy increases, and a generation more sexually liberated begins to age, nursing homes are being forced to confront an increase in sexual activity. This is the generation, after all, that launched the sexual revolution. It well may be that we can’t expect them to sit still as they age out in their local nursing homes! This is one more path that the baby boomers are charting.

Old love: Wanting someone else to be happy

Researchers who study emotions across the life span say old love is in many ways more satisfying than young love—even as it is also more complex. Mary Pipher, wrote “Another Country”, that looks at the emotional life of the elderly. “The really interesting script isn’t that people like to have sex. The really interesting script is what people are willing to put up with. Young love is about wanting to be happy,” she said. “Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”

As it ages, the brain becomes more programmed to be happy in relationships

Researchers trying to understand aging and emotion performed brain scans on people across a range of ages, gauging their reactions to positive and negative scenes. Young people tended to respond to the negative scenes. Those in middle age took in a better balance of the positive. Older people responded only to the positive scenes.

“As people get older, they seem to naturally look at the world more positively. They’re more willing to accept things.” Young brains tend to go to extremes. More drama, the screaming and sobbing so characteristic of young love. Old love softens the focus.

Not everyone would show Justice O’Connor’s generous response

There are many people who are just as jealous, infantile and filled with irrationality now as when they were young. And it still is possible to have a broken heart in old age. Those who study aging can only smile at young lovers who say they never want to become like an old married couple. Despite the popular preference for young love, the O’Connors’ example suggests that we should all aspire to old love–for better and for worse.

Young love is very privileged, and as a culture that may be a mistake

If you want a communal culture where people make sacrifices for each other and work for the common good, you would have a culture that privileges the stories of older people. If you stay married, there are riches that no 25-year-old can understand.

Many of our clients are seniors who come in to our offices to create their Living Trusts

The result is numerous conversations on a wide range of topics related to health, healthcare and end-of-life planning. Sadly, Alzheimer’s and dementia are often part of this conversation, which makes the timing of the Living Trust important. It’s critical that those diagnosed with dementia sign legal documents while they still have testamentary capacity—the legal term defining a person’s legal and mental ability to make or alter a valid Will.

Our Trust package includes a Power of Attorney and an Advance Healthcare Directive. We guide our clients through the process and prepare the legal documents. For most of our services, we charge one flat fee. We’re helpful, compassionate and affordable. Schedule an appointment today at one of our three Bay Area offices in Dublin, Walnut Creek or Oakland.

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