The Memory Care Triangle

The Memory Care Triangle

In general, our society tends to frown on adultery, although it does seem to turn up a lot—in both fiction and in real life: Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester is only too happy involving himself in relationships with any woman other than his legal wife; Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan participate in what was undoubtedly one of the worst-kept secret relationships during the early seasons of the TV series M*A*S*H, but it’s hard to beat the record established by England’s King Henry VIII as he tended to behead his wives so he could legally marry his mistress of the moment.

But then, there’s something that occasionally happens between residents in long-term memory care—something that looks like adultery on the surface except for one significant detail and that is the people involved are not deliberately engaging in a clandestine affair.

Imagine a scenario in which a man with Alzheimer’s has been admitted into memory care. He’s lived for nearly 60 years with his wife and is, therefore, used to having a woman with him—whether he’s at the store, in church, or just around the house on an ordinary weeknight. Now that he’s a long-term care resident, his wife comes in to visit two-to-three times a week, usually leaving before dinner. One day, his wife visits and discovers that her husband has formed what certainly appears to be a romantic bond with another memory care resident.

Surely this man with Alzheimer’s isn’t engaged in some flagrant dalliance! No; the truth is that while cognitive impairment may have stolen his memories, it couldn’t remove his need for relationship and connection with other people. In his mind, the woman he’s holding hands with is his wife; he may even call this woman by his wife’s name.

Understandably, this situation would be devastating for the man’s true wife—leaving her feeling wounded and cast aside. So what can be done to reassure the healthy spouse (whether it’s the husband or the wife) they have not been rejected and/or replaced?

  • First, bear in mind it’s the disease affecting this spouse’s behavior; they didn’t just decide on a whim they wanted to start over with someone new
  • Second, always try to enter the reality of the people with dementia; when arriving for a visit, if the “other” memory care resident is present, try to talk with both of them in a friendly tone because anger and jealousy won’t make any sense to them
  • Third, find a therapist and schedule frequent visits to discuss the caregiver/spousal emotions that are being experienced as a result of this very unusual situation

Nothing about dementia is easy—not the memory loss experienced by the patient nor the emotional pain it causes the caregivers. While it’s true that processing our feelings and learning to manage our expectations is important, it is ultimately in God’s Word that we find the most engaging hope—His promise to meet us in our distress and provide the help we truly need.

Psalm 91:14-15 (NIV)

“’Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.’”


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