September 26, 2011
Televangelist Pat Robertson provoked both angry and dismissive responses after giving a moral endorsement for divorce, when a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease is “not there” anymore. During a 700 Club broadcast this week the conservative Christian leader said, “I know it sounds cruel, but, if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again…”
Robertson, a once presidential candidate, qualified his pastoral guidance saying, “in a sense, ‘she’s gone’ he’s right, it’s like a walking death.” Importantly, he qualified his basic agreement with the show’s caller saying he should “make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”
A Southern Baptist, who’s no longer active as an ordained minister since seeking political office, Pat Robertson holds to a charismatic theology not traditionally common among Southern Baptists. His media and financial resources make him a recognized and controversial public voice for conservative Christianity whose 700 Club news stories are from a religious and political perspective that frequently relates stories to passages from the Bible along with commentary from Robertson, celebrities and other guests interviewed about their religious views.
Over the years, the influential Pat Robertson has made his share of controversial remarks but usually his statements are at odds with those outside the political spectrum of conservative Christians. On this occasion however, his shoot-from-the-lip comments cast a net over both the Alzheimer medical caregiver community and Christians who hold to the sanctity of the marriage vow, Till death do us part. The Christian blogosphere has been nearly universal in their disappointment and criticisms that Robertson’s view is un-Christian, unbiblical and that he is dead wrong on his Alzheimer’s statements.
The scenario Robertson described four times during his 700 Club broadcast, was one where the loved one was already departed, which from the view point he articulated, the afflicted spouse could no longer recognize “her” partner. Many in the blogosphere question whether Robertson’s guidance would have been the same for female spouses wanting to divorce with one Los Angeles Times reader Pamela Ruigh commenting, “Perhaps he [Robertson] is beginning to suffer from the disease himself. Dementia often loosens the tongue and makes you say what you really think.”
Beyond a flabbergasted religious community, Alzheimer concerns in the United States are looming large with someone developing the Alzheimer’s disease every 69 seconds and an estimate that 5.4 million people are currently living with disease.
Importantly, with Alzheimer’s, it is not just those with the disease who suffer. More than 60% of caregivers rate the emotional stress of giving care to be high to very high, with one-third reporting symptoms of depression. According to a March 2011 report from the
Alzheimer’s Association, in 2010, 14.9 million family and friends provided 17 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias valued at $202.6 billion.
By 2030, the segment of the U.S. population aged 65 and older is expected to double, and the estimated 71 million older Americans will make up approximately 20 percent of the total population according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report The State of Aging and Health in America, 2007. Barring development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or more effectively treat the disease, Alzheimer’s is projected to triple in the U.S. population from the current 5.2 million to between 11 and 16 million by 2050 according to estimates using 2000 Census data.
Longer life expectancies and aging baby boomers will also increase the numbers and percentages of Americans who will be among the oldest-old. Between 2010 and 2050, the oldest-old are expected to increase from 15 percent of all older people in the United States to one in every four older Americans (24 percent). This will result in an additional 15 million oldest-old people—individuals at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s according to Census Bureau, Current Population Reports. When the first wave of baby boomers reaches age 85 years (2031), an estimated 3.5 million people aged 85 and older according to Archive of Neurology (2003) will have Alzheimer’s.
Pat Robertson’s comments clearly make rationalizing the legitimacy of a spouses own comfort much more permissive, if not OK for a rapidly aging U.S. population to divorce a spouse when circumstances become inconvenient or different. However, the changing dynamics of relationships are foreseeable and an anticipated component of the institution of marriage which makes reconciling Pat Robertson’s influence to condone abandoning one’s spouse seem absurd to Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer’s Center in Tampa.
During a recent interview Dr. Robert Stern, from the Boston University School of Medicine, said that “a person may not be able to remember a loved one’s name or what happen a couple of minutes ago, but they still can connect” and most importantly, that “feelings are the last to go.”
While love, loyalty and commitment will continue to be at the center of the Alzheimer’s debate it seems, with the exception of Pat Robertson’s controversial opinion, at this point they are the factors which are most likely to lift baby boomers from the shadows of
a longer life expectancy.