Thursday, February 17, 2011

Caregiving: When Does "Until Death Do Us Part" Take Effect?

As caregivers and patient advocates, we often face the issue of a patient who is so ill or incapacitated/suffering from Alzheimer's that physicians insist the patient no longer knows who his or her loved ones are.

Many of us have entered a hospital, hospice or bedroom only to be welcomed with a blank face and a confused "who are you"? We choke back tears and continue on in the role God expects of us - caregiver, friend, family member.

Often the role of spouse continues because of love and loyalty.  Often the role continues to ensure health insurance benefits.

Is there a time when the "healthy" spouse can morally and ethically "abandon" the technical role of spouse and begin a new relationship while the suffering spouse is still alive?

At what point do the marriage vows "until death do us part" take effect and the marriage end?  Obviously, divorce can end the marriage vows but the parties are very much alive.  What about a serious illness? Cancer?  Terminal illness?  Coma?  Alzheimer's?    

At what point can the healthy spouse be free to seek out and have a love affair with another person while still married to a terminally ill spouse? Is it okay so long as all conscious parties are fully informed? Or does having an extra-martial relationship while the spouse is incapacitated reflect a character flaw?

Moreover, what does it say about our society that we would institutionalize our ill and suffering with strangers (where abuse is rampant) so that we can continue with our lives?  We think we deserve something other than caring for those that suffer.  What precisely do we deserve that is more honorable than caring for the suffering among us?

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