Friday, September 16, 2011

Pat Robertson and Alzheimer’s Disease as Justification for Divorce

Pat Robertson has uttered another outrageous commentary during a “700 Club” program on the Christian Broadcasting Network.  He advocated divorce if a spouse became incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease, citing the disease as a “kind of death.”  (

Pat Robertson is a native Virginian (born in Lexington and a graduate of Washington and Lee University) and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach.  He attended law school at Yale, was ordained as a minister in the Southern Baptist Church and ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1988.  When he ran for office he relinquished any church affiliation.  He remains, however, a prominent spokesperson for the “Christian right.”

I have had many patients over the years that have Alzheimer’s.  I have watched patients progress through the stages of this cruel disease as their personality was removed layer by layer like an onion peel   These patients also have other problems including vascular and heart disease, diabetes, etc.  The Alzheimer’s adds another dimension of risk because of the difficulties with compliance (remembering their medications, for instance), mobility issues and confusion.  These patients often exhibit fairly radical personality shifts as well.  A sweet, cooperative elderly gentleman can turn into a combative and argumentative patient very quickly.  I have been amazed over the years by the supportive, caring and loving spouses that often accompany these patients to visits.  They have more than likely been “covering” for their spouse for years, helping them stay organized and functional.  They are present when their loved one says something spontaneous which is often embarrassing or silly.  These spouses suffer social isolation when other folks stop having them over.  First and foremost, they watch as their partner for decades dissolves in front of their eyes.  They lose that companionship and support which is the hallmark of long standing relationship.  They lose life as they knew it. 

According to Pat Robertson, this is the time to punt and run.  Give up.  In his own words, when asked by a viewer of his “700 Club” program if it was alright for a man to see other people if his wife was incapacitated with Alzheimer’s, Robertson said “I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”  Cut your losses, start over, live a little.  Really? 

Where’s the honor and dignity in that?  Leave aside all religion, scripture and Beatitudes and look at it from a strictly moral point of view.  Is that really the right and moral thing to do?  Is that what you would want your spouse to do for you were you to become incapacitated by Alzheimer’s or any other disease?  Why limit it to Alzheimer’s dementia?  Extrapolate this thinking to stroke victims, people with multiple sclerosis or debilitating diabetes.    What’s next, euthanasia?   When did spouses become disposable possessions to be discarded when they don’t work like they used to like an old VHS player? 

I’ve got news for Mr. Robertson.  Everybody gets something.  Everybody dies, and before they do, they usually have some sort of illness that limits them.  It’s the rare bird that lives to a ripe old age and dies in their sleep without ever being seriously ill.  I, for one, am very grateful for a spouse who I know has and will be with me every step of the way, wherever that might lead.

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