In several self-disclosing social media posts and interviews, Dan Gasby, the husband and full-time care partner to B. Smith, iconic restaurateur and television personality, recently (and willingly) brought the world into his new normal. He, his wife and his girlfriend now all spend time together in the same home. Gasby’s girlfriend, Alex Lerner, assists him with day-to-day care partnering duties for B. during her visits. If the photos on social media are any indication, they are all living well and happily in this new arrangement.
As a gerontologist who specializes in dementia care, it’s a topic I’m frequently asked to comment on. Frankly, I feel it is none of my business. I am a strong believer that we could use more tolerance as it relates to what we consider “normal” for family relationships and who occupies a household. But the moral and ethical questions for many dealing with a marriage that involves dementia persist. It is a topic I addressed in a previous blog.
Not surprisingly, the public’s response to this news has ranged from accusing Gasby of abuse to wholeheartedly supporting his relationship as he moves on with his life. Everyone has an opinion, but only those directly involved truly understand the situation. B., who is now reportedly in the late stages of her early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, no longer recognizes her husband, her daughter, nor does she understand the context of her husband’s relationship with Lerner. She lives, like many people in the later stages of the disease, in the moment.
I applaud Gasby for sharing his unique family structure with the world. While the response is conflicting, it opens up the conversation to other families who are dealing with the same issue. I believe this is a personal subject and only those directly involved have a right to say what works for them. It is our responsibility to offer compassionate and non-judgmental care.
A similar scenario is playing out on the small screen. As many of my faithful readers know, I have also been following the recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis storyline on ABC’s General Hospital (GH) involving Sonny Corinthos’ father Mike Corbin, played expertly by Max Gail.
In the past several weeks, the plot has thickened for Mike as he falls in love with Yvonne, a fellow day care participant at his memory care center. The drama in the story comes as Yvonne’s faithful husband has to let go of Yvonne and accept that the definition of their long term marriage is changing. Mike and Yvonne are happy together and both families eventually agree to let the relationship happen despite the pain it causes to Yvonne’s husband. I, once again, applaud the writers at GH for tackling a common, yet distressing, reality that family’s face when dementia is in the picture.
Perhaps the best personal public account grappling with this issue came from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (now struggling with her own dementia diagnosis) in the 2007 article “Love in the Time of Dementia”, which appeared in the New York Times. At the time, O’Connor’s husband was living with Alzheimer’s and romantically involved with another woman in his assisted living community. O’Connor is “thrilled” as she visits the couple and witnesses the relief and contentment it brings her husband. She reminds us that love comes in many shapes and sizes and often relationships have to bend to accommodate the changing needs of one of the people involved.
Perhaps in this age of Alzheimer’s, our views need to, too.