When Dementia Renders Your Spouse a Stranger
|Richard Webber & Adele of Grey's Anatomy|
This issue has received national attention lately, courtesy of the hit television series, Grey's Anatomy, where Dr. Webber's character is losing his wife, Adele, to Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of progressive dementia. Recent scientific findings, however, suggest that there may be many sub-types of dementia.
For example, frontotemporal degeneration [also known as Pick's disease] manifests itself much earlier than Alzheimer's and progresses faster. Frontotemporal degeneration is believed to afflict between 50-60 thousand adults in the United States, compared to the 5 million Americans afflicted with Alzheimer's.
Frontotemporal disease is particularly threatening to a marriage due to the swift onset of symptoms which attack a spouse's personality directly; not just with the onset of memory loss, as in much older Alzheimer's patients. The non-afflicted spouse often feels ignored, snubbed or maligned because of the most common characteristic of the disease: silence.
Like many diseases, frontotemporal degeneration progresses differently in individuals, taking on a life of its own. Most cases feature a prominent and swift deterioration of the patient's overall personality; a complete breakdown in the patient's ability to communicate with and care about others.
Obviously, the patient's ability to hold down a job, or to hang onto their marriage, is put to the test. This is because frontotemporal degeneration attacks the frontal temporal lobe of the brain; the region responsible for decision-making and judgment. The frontal lobe actually shrinks.
Sometimes, one disease is mistaken for the other, leading to confusion among the family care providers and a confusing series of hospital stays, doctors visits and testing.
Dementia, in general, highlights the need to secure a solid estate plan early in a marriage, before the onset of any incapacity. Once a dementia sets in, an individual could lose their mental capacity and have a guardian and conservator appointed to manage their affairs. While this fiduciary could be, and usually is, a family member, no estate planning is possible while a loved one is under such legal incapacity.
I you or a spouse have been diagnosed with dementia, here are some local support groups that may be of use:
- Alzheimer's Association;
- National Family Caregivers Association - [developing e-communities to provide support and information]
- Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration - [referencing a support group in Grand Rapids, MI]