My OpEd in today’s Chicago Tribune:
A person with Alzheimer’s is not “kind of” dead. Not by a long shot. And televangelist Pat Robertson should know better than to speak flippantly from a position of authority on a matter that is complicated, nuanced and deeply personal.
As we learned through interviews with many couples, as well as with medical, spiritual, legal, rehabilitation and psychological experts, while writing “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships,” couples find their way to deal with illnesses and catastrophic injuries.
We know what we are talking about when we say Robertson should beware of trying to make blanket statements without the benefit of knowing all the facts and issues. We have found that dealing with illness is a deeply intimate part of the couple relationship. What is right for one couple may be completely wrong for another.
When illness invades the couple relationship, partners ask themselves and each other some really hard questions: “What do I want to do for this person whom I have loved for many years?” “How much of my life do I give up to take care of my beloved?” “How do I sit by my beloved’s side and watch her suffer?”
Robertson’s assertion that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justified because she is “gone” is more than simply callous and insulting to anyone who has ever loved another. It goes to the heart of both morality and medical ethics. Physicians struggle every day to counsel families about the right time to cut off life support. Ethicists struggle to balance the impact of devastating disease with the persistence of the essential self.
To announce that someone is “gone” when she still has an emotional life — not to mention sensation in her skin, organs and tissues — is to dismiss her as a human being.
For those who find themselves at the intersection of lifetime love and overwhelming obligation, the right path is often painful and difficult to find. Robertson should have counseled this husband — and all partners grieving over the illness of their loved one — to seek psychological support, medical information, spiritual guidance and ultimately to look inside themselves and their relationship to determine the right thing to do. Instead he advised the husband of the ill woman to make sure the wife has custodial care before divorcing her and starting all over again.
He presumes too much.
Barbara Kivowitz, a psychotherapist in Boston, and Roanne Weisman, a science writer and author in Boston, are co-authors of the forthcoming book “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships.”