Dear Margo: As We Were Saying…

Margo-Howard_tall10Margo Howard’s advice

As We Were Saying…

In response to the column where you told a woman whose husband has advanced Alzheimer’s that she could have a romantic life with a widower, I ask you: What happened to honoring the wedding vows of “in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part”? I have not heard any vows that state “until I don’t remember you or you don’t remember me.”

I’m sympathetic to this woman, as my dad died of Alzheimer’s, and it was very draining and even potentially dangerous for my mom. But even when he needed to be in a care center, neither she nor his children abandoned him. He may not have known us, but we knew him and our commitment to him. Your response is essentially shallow and perpetuates laziness of character and the decay of altruistic values. As someone once wrote, “A good life happens to be a fair amount of work. It’s not for the lazy.” — C.F.

Dear C.: I am respectful of your stance and of the people who choose this path, but I am not changing my position. Some moral choices are not clear-cut. Just ask any ethicist. And you have made a false and erroneous assumption that I am sanctioning abandonment. I know more than one woman with an Alzheimer’s-stricken mate who is in a romantic relationship but visits her husband every day — though he does not know who is visiting.

I would be in agreement with you for any disease other than Alzheimer’s. I would think it shameful for a man or woman whose spouse had, say, ALS to “date.” The wild card here is sentience. When the mind is totally gone, it is indeed a living death, and I have never seen the virtue of one person sacrificing his or her life as a gesture. — Margo, rationally

Dear Margo: I am writing in regard to your advice to the woman who wondered whether she could date with a husband deep into Alzheimer’s disease. How sad that this woman sees her husband as “no longer here.” The last time I heard marriage vows, they were “till death do us part,” not “till Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, stroke, etc. do us part.” I think of my precious brother-in-law, who stood by my sister for seven years, treating her like a queen, while she battled breast cancer. Your advice, at best, is unfortunate. — P.D.

Dear P.: There is a serious flaw in your objection. Your sister had breast cancer. Her brain was working; her illness was malignant cells. You mention diabetes, stroke, etc., all of which leave the mind intact. Most diseases are very different in affect from Alzheimer’s or a vegetative state. One could recover from the illnesses you mention — or not. A person with Alzheimer’s, however, who does not recognize anyone, is essentially no longer here — no quotation marks required. A person with any other illness, I believe, is owed fidelity. — Margo, unwaveringly

And This Was Too Good Not To Share  

Regarding the letter from the woman whose in-laws obnoxiously force others to join in their pre-meal prayers no matter where they are dining, I too had similar problems with my overbearing family of religious zealots. They would actually take it further by standing up at the table in the middle of the restaurant, joining hands and ending the prayer with, “And, Lord, please bless all these heathens that didn’t bless their own food.” Seriously. — Got the Crazies in My Family, Too!

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

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38 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – I too remember the letter aboutt the in-laws that insist on making themselves a center of attention when out in public. I will say now what I said then, they need to return to the Bible and educate themselves about what God had to say about those that take to the streets to prayer. It’s people like this that make people like me have a hard time convincing other Christianity is a beautiful Religon.
    Letter #1 – I am standing and applauding those that wrote in to voice their objections to Margo’s response. There are many times Margo has been spot on for various letter writers but this time she missed the mark completely.

    ANYONE that has a spouse with Alzheimers and decides to date others is IMO the lowest piece of scum on the planet. I agree with the letter writers, what about vows? Since when were they just words? Till death do we part and in sickness and in health….how much sicker does one have to be than to develop a medical condition that robs them of their memory and ability to acknowledge or recognize their surroundings?
    I said it before and I will say it again, there are MILLIONS of men and women that stay by the sides of a spouse with Alzheimers out of love.  As cruel as it may sound, once a patient with advanced Alzheimers is at that stage, it isn’t as if they will live another 30 -40 years. Are these spouses that cheat so impatient for sex that they can’t keep their vows and wait it out?

    People that cheat for whatever reason are scum of the Earth! BUt then again that is just my own opinion.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      > Are these spouses that cheat so impatient for sex that they can’t keep their vows and wait it out?
      Do you honestly believe the reason people decide to start dating is that they can’t wait to jump in the sack with someone else? Please. They are people and they crave attention, care and love, just like every other human being.
      I find it sad when people only see life as black and white, and lump everyone into the same category as ‘scum of the earth’ and feel there is no such thing as extenuating circumstances. But then, that’s only my opinion.

      • avatar Davina Wolf says:

        I agree, Ariana–Belinda sounds hysterical.  She’s also essentially calling the millions of people who “break their vows” by divorcing “scum”.  Margo’s reasoning is sound and very intelligent.  I concur with her completely. 

    • avatar mac13 says:

      Belinda, you really don’t have a clue do you. My aunt has Alzheimers. It started in her late 50’s. Shortly after she turned 66 she had to be put in a long term care facility. Why? She didn’t know her husband. If he touched her she screamed and cried. Thought she was being attacked. The Dr.’s told us that in the majority of cases the patient lashes out to the ones they were the closest to. For years when he visited, she would scream and cry because this stranger was there. Then she got to the point of not knowing anyone and sat around with a blank stare. She will be 89 soon. My uncle died years ago. Alone and sad. So, yes, they can live many years in the advanced stage. The fact that you would condemn him for your black and white world? What does that make you? Not everything is black and white. Repeat as necessary.

    • avatar Ecchi says:

      “is IMO the lowest piece of scum on the planet. ”
      “People that cheat for whatever reason are scum of the Earth! BUt then again that is just my own opinion.”
      People who throw in “in my opinion are just tryig to weasel out of how evil and judgemental they are. You don’t think for a second that it’s just your opinion. You just throw that in at the end so that you can play the victim when someone calls you on it.
      People like you are the lowest scum on the planet. But that’s just my opinion. 🙂

    • avatar Jay Gentile says:

      We get it, Belinda. Someone cheated on you or someone you love, and you made sweeping moral rules for the planet and appointed yourself judge. I see you as a sad, angry, heartless woman with a one-size-fits-all mind. I bet you’re single, too.

      • avatar Deeliteful says:

        Oh yes, Belinda is single. Perhaps that has something to do with the “moral” high road she takes and the pronoucement of judgement she is quick to make for people in whose shoes she has never walked. Regular readers of this site are well aware of Belinda’s views. I’m also a Christian and I believe the Bible instructs us to “Judge not less you be judged”. Opinions are one thing, but Belinda’s scorching diotrodes are something else.

    • avatar avast2006 says:

      Belinda, if you personally are having difficulty making other people believe Christianity is a beautiful religion (and I have no difficulty believing that is a routine occurrence), you need look no further than your own mirror for the reasons.

  2. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Re Alzheimers and cheating…I’m not sure how a spouse caring for an Alheimer’s spouse finds the energy to cheat, even if the sick spouse is in long term care. 
    Letter #2:  I chuckled aloud at reading your letter…oh how I wish other diners had stood and prayed…*oh Lord, please bring the pharisees among us to their senses.*  But then you would have dueling prayer groups and this could get out of hand pretty quickly.   

  3. avatar bamabob says:

    I’m with you, Margo.  Stick to your guns. (Although I never thought I’d see the day when you and Pat Robertson would agree on something…or for that matter when Pat Robertson and I would agree on something.) I don’t understand how anyone can compare Alzheimer’s to breast cancer or any other disease that leaves the mind intact.  Who are these people “cheating” on?  The person to whom they made those vows is gone.  The body is there, but that’s it. 
    As for the holy rollers…I was in a restaurant once that was held hostage by a group like that.  When they finally said Amen after several minutes someone at another table stood up and pointed at their food and proclaimed, “I curse this formerly blessed food in the name of the Prince of Darkness!”  He was clearly making fun of them but they were all horrified and damned if they didn’t pray all over again to undo the damage he did to their food.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      Oh! Some people are so bold! I wish I had been there to see that, it would have been very entertaining. Maybe the next person could have stood up and blessed their pasta in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and ended with a resounding: Ramen!

    • avatar avast2006 says:

      Bwahahaha!  He should have counter-cursed their food a few more times:  first to coldness, then to staleness, then to inedibility due to long neglect by credulous zealots.  The proof would be right there in front of them, that his curses were the stronger.

  4. avatar lisakitty says:

    Margo, you publish twice a week.  Why are you doing “read-on” columns?

  5. avatar Cindy M says:

    I understand the POV you are making, Margo, and I still respectfully disagree. The letter writer’s attitude, imo, was “How dare life inconvenience me?” She mentioned “Living my life.” Me me me; I come first (despite spouse – *us* – still being alive). The issue of Alzheimer’s is tragic; it robs everyone. When I, 20 years ago, married a disabled man I knew we could potentially be up against various hardships. Oh yeah! We sure have faced some. Life did inconvenience me, in various ways! But we’ve preservered.
    Life sure can inconvenience our plans, hopes, dreams; and those inconveniences can really suck, be totally unfair. That’s life.

    • avatar butterfly55 says:

      But you still had a person you could talk to, there was still a two way relationship.  With alzheimers you are alone, the other person is already gone.  You say “But we preservered.”  In these cases there is only one left to do so.  A  totally different situation.  Not a fair to compare.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      Would it still apply if you married someone who is then struck by a car the day after and lives in a vegetative state for the next 40 years?  What if your spouse goes missing and you’ll never know definitively if they are dead? Even if they are declared as dead by law, if you’re really being so black and white about this, you’d also not be allowed to start dating again because there was no proof if they ran away or were killed.
      No bible or religious text was designed to take every single extenuating circumstance into consideration, so I’m not sure why people hasten to judge everything as though that were true.
      That’s why there is a church to guide people when they run into grey areas such as these (or ethicists, etc.). So they can ask assistance to check whether they upheld the spirt of the vow, or there’s just no room for movement and that’s just too bad, so sad.

    • avatar Ecchi says:

      Cindy, you either didn’t understand Margo’s point or simply ignored it. There is a difference between Alzheimer’s which robs people or their minds, and other diseases/disablities.
      Would you have married your husbad if he had been in a coma when you met him?

    • avatar avast2006 says:

      Cindy, I strongly suspect that if during your courtship he didn’t remember you from one visit to the next, and screamed when you touched him because he thought he was being attacked by a stranger, you wouldn’t have married him in the first place.

  6. avatar D C says:

    Regarding the Alzheimer’s patient/spouse issue — I watched Hope Springs with Meryl Streep and TL Jones this past weekend.  Those of you who are bashing Margo’s advice should see this movie and imagine the spouse’s in Meryl Streeps shoes.  They want INTIMACY — not necessarily sex — and that is impossible with a stranger. 
    If the standard marriage vows had been written by a really good contracts attorney, they would be different and take into account that Alzheimer’s isn’t just “sickness” like cancer — it is death of the mind, death of all that caused you to fall in love with that person, and death of everything that caused them to fall in love with you. 
    I’m with Margo on this.  If you want to be a stand-up person and stand by your Zombie spouse and resolve to live alone til you die, then go ahead and do it, but don’t fault others for expressing their basic human needs WHILE STILL taking care of the essential dead spouse.  Think about those orphan babies who lingered and died because they were never touched.  If you’re saying it’s better to linger and die, then who’s going to take care of your Zombie when you’re gone? 
    I’m sure there will be blowback from the Zombie categorization, but in our current culture, when the brain is dead that’s what they call it — on Cable, in movies… everywhere. 

    • avatar Ariana says:

      I don’t mind the zombie categorization especially after losing my own grandmother to alzheimers, but you lost me at the dying orphan babies and lingering and dying ourselves. Were you making a separate argument for euthanization or am I missing something here?

      • avatar mabel says:

        Ariana, a long time ago (probably in the early 1900s) when there were a lot of orphaned children warehoused in institutions, it was observed that infants who had no physical ailments but were never touched or interacted with by their caregivers except for absolutely necessary reasons like feeding and diaper changing would waste away and die – apparently dying from a lack of human affection rather than from any physical cause. DC is referring to this phenomenon to illustrate how critical human affection is to sustaining human life – it’s not just a “want”, it’s a “need”. At least that’s how I understood his point.

        • avatar avast2006 says:

          mabel, that’s how I read it too.  And the way I see it, both the stricken patient and the caregiver have that need — the poor human shell left behind by Alzheimers will waste and die similarly, without love and care, but so will the healthy survivor waste away without a healthy relationship.  And I don’t see that the healthy person is going to have that need met by the patient, so insisting on a celibate existence in order to care for an empty shell is to create two victims of the disease instead of one. 

        • avatar Ariana says:

          Ok that makes more sense now, thanks

  7. avatar lebucher says:

    I would agree that a spouse in advanced Alzheimer’s or someone in a permanent vegetative state would be the exception to marriage vows.  The decent thing to do would be to continue to live your life but not to abandon their care and well-being.  Back when the Bible was written they didn’t have these long term maladies to contend with.  And you would not fault an Alzheimer’s patient for starting a romantic relationship with someone he/she met at a nursing facility, would you?  After all the patient no longer knows they are even married.

    • avatar angelmother3 says:

      Several years ago I was visiting my MIL in a long term care facility. I will digress for a moment to correct something Margo said. Strokes do not always leave the mind intact. My MIL had a stroke that left her body completely intact but destroyed her mind. She became demented overnight, not gradually, as in Alzheimer’s. Anyway, there was a woman at the facility visiting her husband, who lived there. He had dementia, and he had a girlfriend whom he met at the home, also with dementia. He and the girlfriend had no comprehension that the other woman was his wife. They thought she was just a nice lady who was their friend. The wife permitted the relationship because she understood their incapacity to understand reality.

  8. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    It is shocking how many people are so quick to accept betraying one’s vows just because someone has been disgnosed with Alzheimers.
    Let’s follow your line of logic shall we…..

    It’s okay for a spouse that has a loved one that has Alzheimers to seek love, attention, companionship with someone else because their spouse can no longer recognize them or acknolege them. The marriage is essentially dead because they have no partner in their lives anymore.

    Well if that is true, why didn’t this letter writer and all the other partners and spouses that feel that their Alzheimer partner is basically brain dead, why don’t they get a divorce? Leave….walk away and go on in life and find an able bodied person to be with?  Why stay in a marriage that is unfufilling, even if it is due to illness?

    I believe (and let me remind you people that this is an American website where I am allowed to have a different opinion from others) that their vows mean nothing to them. It is just words said in a ceremony. Now that life has taken a dramatic change and they are not getting all they want, they feel justified to look for love elsewhere and their spouse can sit/lay in a treatment facility alone and the Hell with them.
    Again I say, people that turn their backs on a loved one that has been stricken with Alzheimers are scum! And those that honor their vows and love for their spouse in those unfortunate instances I have the utmost respect and adminiration for.

    • avatar RickS says:

      Belinda Joy – What think you then when an Alzheimer’s patient no longer remembers or recognizes their spouse and starts a raltionship with someone else? What is the spouse to do? What of the vows then?
      Also, many spouses can’t or don’t divorce because this could drastically alter the benefits and financial picture for the couple and be very detrimental. It just wouldn’t be pratical and then folks (like you probably) would just carry on about that.
      It’s all well and good to pontificate regardnig the vows and what have you but life is not always black and white and 99% of it is the grey in between.

    • avatar avast2006 says:

      You honestly think that divorcing the stricken person would be more merciful?  Destroying their financial stability, abandoning them entirely?  That would be more compassionate? 
      No, you just want the healthy spouse to be miserable 24-7, for no good reason.
      Yes, you are allowed to state your opinions.  And we are allowed to state our opinions that your opinions are nonsense.  That’s what free speech means.  It doesn’t mean that foolishness is automatically entitled to respect it hasn’t earned.

      • avatar avast2006 says:

        With respect to that last point, do I actually need to point out that YOU are the one using rhetoric like “scum of the earth” to describe those you disagree with?  And you are surprised that you might get some pushback against that sort of extremism?

  9. avatar rusty says:

    The Alzheimer’s afficted husband of retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor met another Alzheimer’s patient and began a romance; his happinesswas a relief to Justice O’Connor, according to a statement given by her in November of 2007. Alzheimer’s patients who forget their spouses and fall in love with someone else is a somewhat common scenario, experts say. Should the non-afflicted spouse be denied the same happiness?

    • avatar Belinda Joy says:

      Rusty, in all do respect, the scenario you are describing is not the situation explained in the original letter to Margo, nor the responses to it in today’s post by Margo.
      The issue was a woman that wanted to know whether it was wrong for her to start dating and having sex, given her husband is in an advanced stage of Alzheimers where he no longer speaks nor recognizes her.

      What you are describing is blatant infidelity, and both parties consented to it. That is not the same as a man sitting alone in hospice in a canatonic state as his wife is out dating and having sex with other men.

  10. avatar avast2006 says:

    All I know is, when I’m so senile that I can’t even remember my wife by her face when she comes to visit, let alone that she visited me yesterday, that I want her to go home to a life that is as lonely and miserable as I am now incapable of feeling.  Because that’s the best way I can think of to show how much I love her.

  11. avatar bella321 says:

    LW1’s situation reminds me of another:  a friend’s husband’s car was struck by a piece of concrete.  He was left in a childlike, brain damaged state.  He needs to be fed, washed, and diapered.  He does not know his wife is his wife, or his children his children, but he can talk to them and smile. He seems to enjoy being with them.  My friend cared for him and suffered with loneliness for 8 years.  He lives at home with his family, and he always will.  After 8 years, we could all see how much our friend was suffering.  One of us talked with her, and convinced her to discreetly date (her kids were finally older and out of the house). 
    It is like we have seen a new person, since she took this advice.  She is dating a person she met through a support group, and who is in a similar situation.  No one in her family knows, but she is sooooooo much more peaceful and happy.  And her husband is still with her.  She still cares for him.  I honestly don’t know if she could have kept it up forever (her husband will live a full life span) otherwise.  Isn’t her husband better off in the home where he is happy with the woman he loved whose presence still makes him happy?  Isn’t she better off to finally have companionship and love again?

  12. avatar Arnquist says:

    I have been married for almost 45 years.  My spouse and I have discussed this…Honey, if I am ever so deep in dementia or Alzheimer’s that I do not recognize you, please do not sacrifice the rest of your life in trying to remain faithful to me.  When I no longer know, I can no longer be hurt by your actions, and because I love you, I would not want you to miss a chance at love, companionship, togetherness with someone else in a misguided effort to care for me.  If you love, me, know that I love life, and all it has to offer, and I want that for you.  Please see that my physical needs are met, that I am comfortable, that I am not abandoned.  Visit, and if you have a new love in your life, if that person would share in those visits, I, now being of sound mind, would welcome that caring both for me and for you.  Life is short; we have but the blink of an eye, and I want you to find every joy that life has to offer.
    Yes, we discussed it – but really, we didn’t have to…he knows me well enough, after all these years, to understand what I feel…and i, him.
    And to be honest – even if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this would be his choice…I would still take that path, and be comfortable with the the morality of the choice.  I would not impose my morality on others; if you make a different choice, that is your right – nor will i allow others to impose their moral choices on me.