Home > Applying Political Science, Political Theory > Pat Robertson and the duty to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s

Pat Robertson and the duty to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s

In a recent article from the on-line magazine slate.com William Saletan asks whether Pat Robertson’s statement that Alzheimer’s can justify divorce because your spouse is “gone” is right. I encourage you to read the article before continuing reading this post.

On the surface, Political Science appears ill-equipped for answering the question of whether you should leave your spouse if they have Alzheimer’s. After all, what do you care if x% of Americans would leave a spouse with Alzheimer’s for someone else, or if a spouse who watched x number of hours of “The Jersey Shore” had an x% increase in the likelihood of leaving his or her spouse?

Alternatively, for a more definitive empirical measurement of the problem, the following cartoon provides a clear answer to the question posed by one of Robertson’s callers: should you leave someone based on an objective measure of how much happiness that person provides you?

To many people (at least the one’s who can correctly read a line graph) the above cartoon will provide a simple solution to the dilemma of whether you should leave your spouse because your spouse has Alzheimer’s and has no idea who you are. As your happiness goes down, you should “find someone else.”

What I find intriguing about Saletan’s article is that it invites people to rethink their previously held opinions about Pat Robertson, conservatism, liberalism, their marriage bonds, adultery, and their own ethical and moral values. And it is in this capacity that Political Theory, as a subfield within political science, can provide ways of moral reasoning that might help sort through the complexity of Robertson’s response.

Consent as the Foundation of the Social (and Marital) Contract

In 2011 we take it as axiomatic that people consent to the relationships that define their lives. The social contract tradition of political theory, which includes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and The Declaration of Independence, values the ability of people to freely choose their obligations and commitments. Commitments that people choose are legitimate. However, each of the thinkers (and document) listed above has a slightly different understanding of what consent requires of the person doing the consenting. And this is at the heart of Saletan’s article about Robertson’s comment. Consent, like the subtleties of an enduring marriage, is complicated.

On one level a marriage vow is an oath and a pledge binding two people together: a union of two separate entities into one. Marriage vows appear as a variation of the following:

Groom/Bride: I,____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Wife/Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

Bride/Groom: I,_____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Husband/Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.

While egalitarian sensibilities often lead couples to delete the “to obey” from the second passage, few couples delete the passage “in sickness and in health.” If you consent to marriage, then you have pledged to “hold from this day forward . . . in sickness and in health” to love and cherish the person you married.

So what does “in sickness and in health” mean to different people? And how might two people come to a common understanding of what “in sickness and in health” means? When is a spouse no longer a spouse? Or, alternatively, when have the obligations of matrimony been violated to the point where one spouse is justified in leaving another? And here is the larger political question: when do the obligations to others outweigh the claims to one’s own happiness? Political theory tries to answer such questions through discussion of justice, virtue, and whether there is a duty to care between people who are spouses, friends, and even strangers.

Questions for you to think about:

  1. As you read the Saletan’s article ask yourself what you would do?
  2. What kind of information or knowledge would help you make the decision Robertson’s caller is trying to make?
    1. How does your education, particularly in political science, help you morally reason through this question?
  3. Or, if your college education has no business in trying to educate someone about how to handle the situation Robertson’s caller describes, who—if anyone—should educate people about their duties and obligations?
    1. Should we even bother with such questions in a political science class?
  4. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse with Alzheimer’s from financial abuse by the other spouse?
    1. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse without Alzheimer’s from financial, or physical abuse from the spouse with Alzheimer’s?
  5. Finally, since you have been asked to comment on this blog post by Professor Klunk, I would ask that you read some of the commentsposed on slate.com about Saletan’s article, and then think about the following questions:
    1. How would your comments differ if your posts about this article were 1) anonymous,  2) if your name, picture and home address were attached to your comments, 3) you had to read your comments face to face to your classmates?
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  1. Hillary
    September 20, 2011 at 6:30 am

    that sounds like so much work

    • Jeff Becker
      September 20, 2011 at 8:58 am

      What, specifically, sounds like so much work?

  2. Brishonn
    September 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I feel that if a person really loves their spouse then they should have no problem sticking by his or her side, because when it comes down to this is the time when he or she will need you the most.

  3. Jocelyn
    September 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    If my spouse did have alzheimer’s disease or any other disease for that I matter, I would still stay by his side because I wouldn’t want my spouse to leave me if I got ill. By you staying with your spouse, that shows that you truly do love and care for them and that you stand by your marriage vows, that you would love them in sickness and in health.

  4. Neil
    September 21, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    I wouldn’t leave somebody because of Alzheimer’s disease. I wouldn’t want to be left if I was ill. What it comes down to, I think, is loyalty to one another in the marriage, and how much you really care for your spouse.

  5. Yesenia Gutierrez
    September 21, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    If my spouse had Alzheimer’s I would do everything in my power to help them get better, look for any alternative/experimental treatments that would be available. Although, if my spouse was that far gone and knew nothing of me and our history, to the point where they rejected me I do not believe that I would have the strength to stay with them. I have the right to my own happiness as does my spouse but if he can’t remember anything about me our our marriage then we both suffer. I agree with Pat Robinson’s statement that they are dead in a sense, because what used to be the person I loved, would be a hollow shell with someone completely unfamiliar. I believe that if the other loved me, that they would want me to be happy, although care would still continue. That’s truth, although the answer might be different depending on various factor such as the duration of the marraige, how much history was there, or if there was a chance for recuperation.

    I believe that the political question that the blogger prompts: “when do the obligations to others outweigh the claims to one’s own happiness?” is one that should be taken into consideration, especially in these economic times. As people might be swayed to do things that benefit them more, than to the people that they are obligated to help. My answer to this question is when the obligations to others is detrimental to both parties–the one who wants happiness, and the one to who it is the person’s obligation– then the ” claims to one’s own happiness” would be understandable. In a political setting, however the rules change and politicians should do what is best for the people they represent, even if they are not happy about it, although this is not always the case,

    To answer the last three questions that the blogger poses at the end of the article. My answer might use less careful language if it was anonymous. If my picture and home address were attached my comment would be the same as it is now because I would not be afraid to say what I think. That’s the beauty of america, freedom of speech, and in this circumstance it is protected. If I had to read this post in front of my classmates I would not change a thing, even if others challenged me on the position I take or simply disagreed with it, because I believe in it I can defend it if need be. But I can also acknowledge other arguments that I might have failed to take into account. I am not saying that my opinion on the matter is correct, however, I am saying that I have the right to believe what I wish because I can.

  6. Emma Fonseca
    September 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    For starters, my opinion would not change if I was speaking these words to my classmates face-to-face, my name is already attached and I wouldn’t post a comment that I didn’t agree with.

    In this article there is a reasonable question posed, would you or would you not leave your spouse that had Alzheimer’s disease? If this was my situation, I don’t know that I would be able to stick around for my spouse that could no longer remember me. The chance that they may remember me from time to time would absolutely kill me and I don’t think I would be able to stay in a situation where the person I was in love with could not remember my name. Assuming that the person with Alzheimer’s was in their later stages of life (I’ve never heard of a young person with Alzheimer’s but I’m sure it’s possible) there would most likely be a lifetime of memories between the married couple, and those memories are usually expected to remain with the person until they die. For this reason I could understand why people would want to leave their spouse who was now forgetful.

    However, that is not to say that I would leave them high and dry with no one to take care of them. I would make sure that someone capable was watching after my spouse. Whether that be an at home care specialist or I had them at a home for Alzheimer’s patients, I would make sure that person I loved was well taken care of.

  7. Jennifer
    September 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    well i believe if someone makes a commitment they should follow through with it, becasue essentially they agreed to it. its a contract legally binding two people. in this case leaving someone because they have alzheimers seems well like the spouse is abandoning that person. if i had alzhiemers i would hate to see me husband leave just because i was ill. i dont know it just really upsets me that people do that.

  8. Samuel Park
    September 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    If my spouse had Alzheimer’s disease and couldn’t remember me or my name, I would still continue to love her, for her. I feel like, it would be my duty to help the person i gave my love to. And something this big, really shows if you married a person you truly love.

  9. Hannah Perkins
    September 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I have mixed opinions about this topic. I mean, yes, if I married someone clearly I would have vowed to love them in sickness and in health, but conversely, when they don’t remember who you are, it’s hard to love them the same way.
    I do think that I would most likely stay with my spouse who had Alzheimers because I believe that marriage is a lifetime bond between two people and I would expect my husband to do the same for me.

  10. Sarah Boruszak
    September 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I couldn’t see myself leaving my spouse just because of an illness that they did not ask for. I would definitely want to stay by their side till death do us part. I see how other people might not have the strength to stay but I think it would just be up to the person who is still mentally capable and how they felt about the situation. Obviously it would be different for each person but I would agree that I couldn’t leave my spouse over that. The work involved would not be the problem, yes it would take a lot out of me but for the person I love it would be worth it.

  11. Ana Waskiewicz
    September 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    As hard as it would be to stay with someone you love although they do not remember you, I htink people should stay with their spouses through the hard times which includes Alzheimer’s. When two people get married, they promise to be together forever, no matter what and by leaving your spouse because they have Alzheimer’s, people would be breaking that promise.

  12. Nathan Reed
    September 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    If I was in this situation, I would stay with my wife. Marriage is about loving someone, even if they cannot remember you to love you. If you give up on them, then you do not really love them. If you really love them, then you will stay with them no matter what. Giving up on them because you are not happy is just weak.

  13. Lauren Barrera
    September 22, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    First off, this is a very tough subject to comment on. I feel that neither decision (staying, or leaving) would make me happy. It would be incredibly sad to stay with the person you love, when they have no recollection of who you are, or the relationship you had. At the same time, it would be so sad to say goodbye, to leave the person that was your other half, I feel that it would be as if mourning the loss of that person :( In the end, if I were put in that situation, I would stay by that person’s side, I would be there, I would still love them. I don’t think I could ever leave them, and move on with my life happily.

  14. Mitchell
    September 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I heard about this initially but reading more about it does bbetter represent what Pat said. I dont think id divorce my spouse but id understand if someone did

  15. daniel kemether
    September 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    this is very tough. if it was at a young age… honestly i think after a few years of dealing with it i would end up leaving her. life is too short to be chained down by the need to take care of others. i know this is a very selfish thought but its true. also this depends on age. if im around 70, my life as an individual is basically over anyways. i will be dependent on others as it is, so i would stay with her. i dont think the state has a duty to protect the spouse from financial abuse, but i think that an idealist view will work perfectly for this situation. where in a good community, a good person will financially satisfy their spouses needs.

  16. Chris
    November 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Honestly for me I think that it would be difficult to remain married to someone with Alzheimer’s just because of the fact that my wife would not remember anything about our marriage. I would try to work it out though and stay by my wife side and be there through sickness and health just because I would not want my significant other to leave me alone if I were to become ill and had Alzheimer’s .

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