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Minding Our Elders: Long-time spouse may lose will to live

DEAR CAROL: My mom died a month ago and Dad is in a nursing home with mid to late-stage Alzheimer’s. Mom had visited him every day until shortly before she died. At the time, it seemed that Dad didn’t even recognize Mom when he saw her, but now that she’s gone Dad’s going downhill fast and the doctor says he doesn’t expect Dad to live much longer.

We told Dad about Mom’s death and we took him to the funeral for a short while, but he seemed unaffected. Could Dad really understand that Mom died? Why has he gone from a physically healthy man to this sickly person so quickly? I hate the thought of losing him so soon after Mom’s death. – Denise

DEAR DENISE: Your dad may not have absorbed everything that happened surrounding his wife’s death, but he is likely aware of the change. After all, she visited him daily and then suddenly stopped. Even if he didn’t seem to recognize her each time she visited, he knew her voice. He knew her touch. He knew that she was there for him. People with Alzheimer’s often understand a lot more than we may give them credit for, even if the logic and sequence is not what we would understand. Perhaps in these cases it’s more of a spiritual connection.

Recently, there was a story in the news that was also quite popular on social media. A husband and wife who had been married 63 years died on the same day. This isn’t as unusual as many people think. If you watch the obituaries in any local newspaper you’ll likely see deaths of long-married couples happening quite often within days, weeks or months of one another.

I witnessed such a situation. There was a gentleman with severe Alzheimer’s who lived in the same nursing home as my parents. This couple’s story was very similar to your parents’.

The wife had cancer but faithfully visited her husband until close to her death. After she died, the family took their father to his wife’s funeral. Throughout it all, he seemed completely oblivious to what had happened to his wife. Yet, less than two weeks later, he died. The doctor had no explanation other than a broken heart.

My parents had a similar situation, though less dramatic. Mom and Dad had shared a room in the nursing home during the last few months of Dad’s life. After Dad died, Mom lost her will to live. Her heart kept beating for five additional months and she went through the motions of living, but she’d essentially let go. Eventually her body followed.

I’m sorry to tell you that it’s likely that your dad’s decline will lead to an earlier death than was expected. I hope that you can give your dad as much comfort as possible while you have him here with you. Enjoy him as long as you can. Then, when he lets go of life, be glad in your heart that he has joined your mom. That’s likely what he wants to do.

Remember, Denise. You won’t be without your parents’ spiritual influence even after your dad dies. Think of them as you go about living your own life and you will continue to feel their presence.