Love in the Time of Dementia

When we first met him, he had been living in the locked dementia ward for almost a year. The staff told us that his transition into living in this intentional community had been rough. He had been a farmer all of his life, used to being outside in all kinds of weather. He still spent much of his day looking at the sky out of the large windows in the living room of the nursing home. He would pronounce weather conditions and his predictions for the coming weather to any and all who would listen. She always listened; his constant companion. He called her “his girl” and she would smile her sweet, vacant smile. From the first day he met her, the staff told us, he started to settle in and gradually he became quite happy in his new home, with his new girl.

He had never married; the farm was his life. She was a widow with two grown children and several grandchildren. Her dementia was much more advanced than his. When he complained about being locked up in the dementia unit, she would pat his hand, or lean over and give him a soft kiss and he would smile back at her and be peaceful again.

They ate every meal together and sometimes danced a slow dance to a song on the radio. Everyone liked watching them hold hands as they strolled together in the enclosed garden; the other residents, the staff, visiting families, we all thought they were such a cute couple, so sweet. Even her children began to accept their mother’s affection for her fellow resident in the dementia ward.

Then one night, a staff member found them together in her bed. She seemed quite happy to be sharing her bed with him, but the staff were thrown into turmoil. What should they do? They decided to ask him to return to his own room. He left her room reluctantly, informing the staff that his intentions were honorable. He planned to marry her.

The next morning, the staff invited her children to the home for a meeting. They explained the situation to her son and daughter and asked them for some guidance. The staff told her children that they were not sure if their mother had the cognitive ability to give consent to be intimate. Her children sat dumbfounded. Of all of the difficulties they had faced throughout their mother’s journey through Alzheimer’s, they had never anticipated anything like this. They knew that their mother seemed smitten with this man who was, for all intents and purposes, a perfect stranger to them. It just never occurred to them that this seemingly harmless relationship would turn into a real romance. They asked the staff for some time to think it over and requested that their mother and this man be kept apart. When they moved him to another section of the Alzheimer’s floor, he cried and told us,

“They have taken me away from the only woman I ever loved!”

We felt torn ourselves. On one hand, this late blooming romance seemed like a lovely experience for both people. On the other hand, was the woman with more advanced dementia capable of giving her consent? We sat with him late one evening, as he talked about his lost love and his lost farm. We could do little more than pat his hand and tell him that we understood, that we heard him.

Toward the end of our visit, he asked us to take out some of the photos of tractors that we had shown him before. He looked longingly at each picture of the machines. We pointed to one photograph of a tractor parked in field of weeds and told him that it looked to us like this tractor was broken. He shook his head,

“No, that tractor is old, but it is isn’t broken. It’s just parked in some high grass. Sometimes, you have to look deeper, sometimes you have to look real deep.”

Even in his grief, even with dementia, this gentle farmer had taken care to explain to us the importance of truly understanding what we see.

We were probably the last people who ever talked with him, he died in his sleep later that night. The doctor said it was his heart. Some of the staff said yes, his heart, he died of a broken heart. Others dismissed this sentimentality, preferring to believe that he died of natural causes. Whatever the cause of his death, at the very end of his life, we believe that he knew true love: if only for a few soft kisses and a slow dance in a locked dementia ward.