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A hug is duct tape for the soul.

 


Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt's.
Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer's and then an abrupt form of dementia.
In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. "An hour later, she looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'" he recalled.
When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what's a spouse to do? As Valentine's Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.
When a couple is faced with the sudden or gradual change in the person who now may no longer be able to give flowers or go out to the movies, it often means a new definition of love.
"I made a vow," said an emotional Weeks. "For better or for worse, in sickness and health. She has stood by me in mission work, in the pastorate. Why can't I stand by her now?"
Several recent examples reflect the complexities of love in medically challenging situations:
  • Last summer, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson initially suggested on his "700 Club" program that a man divorce his wife who had Alzheimer's and "start all over again" with dating. Alzheimer's, he said, was "like a walking death." He later said he was "misunderstood."

  • In early January, The Washington Post Magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury after a heart attack. She eventually decided to divorce him but continue caring for him with her second husband.

  • On Friday (Feb. 10), "The Vow" hits movie screens, an adaptation of a rereleased book about a young married couple whose serious car accident left the wife unable to recognize her husband. In fact, she thought she was not married.
"There's always an obligation, I think, to keep faith with your spouse but the shape that that can take, morally speaking, can vary," said Darlene Fozard Weaver, an ethicist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
When medical crises interrupt a couple's expectations of wedded bliss, there are all kinds of dynamics to consider: Is the ill spouse now abusive? Can the still-well spouse manage the necessary care?

Although "The Vow" is a romantic drama about trying to get a wife to fall in love with her husband again, Fozard Weaver said it's not far from what real-life marriage -- with health challenges or not -- is all about.
"Keeping faith in a marriage is always this ongoing process of both remembering what brought you together in the first place but also responding to and embracing the person who's here before you now," she said.
The film is based on the real-life story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter after the couple was involved in the 1993 car accident. Physical therapist Scott Madsen watched the husband move from caretaker to coach to eventually, an again accepted mate.
"As she got better, then the relationship became better as well, more of a normal relationship," said Madsen, who served as best man when the couple renewed their vows in 1996.
Kim Carpenter writes in the book "The Vow" that some people suggested divorce, saying it might even help with medical expenses. That was not his choice.
Greg Ayotte, director of consumer services for the Brain Injury Association of America, said there's a misconception that most spouses of brain-injured patients -- people who have been in a car accident, or had a fall, stroke, or tumor -- head to divorce court. According to two recent studies, the vast majority of married brain-injured patients remain wed.
"In the world of brain injury, the term often used is 'new normal,'" he said. "As you begin to understand the injury, you kind of develop a new normal for your life and your family."

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