Uneven aging: When a lovely flame dies

My in-laws, whom here I'll call Roger and Rosalie, were models of happy marriage; the devotion and contentment of "Ro and Ro", as they are known, cast a glow on family and friends.

When the kids were small, Roger made their breakfast and got them off to school so Rosalie could sleep longer and rise to a peaceful house. Ever a romantic, he wrote love poems for her and did not mind if they were read aloud to anyone. She, in turn, supported his dream of early retirement and  travelled for fifteen years as an "RV gypsy" with Roger, even though she deeply missed the family events that took place during the six months each year that they were on the road.

They explored North America for fifteen years, carefree, content and deeply into velcro (which holds things on RV walls), until Roger's deafness made driving unsafe and the rig aged out. In their early seventies, they swapped the RV for comfortable apartment in their home city, where family outings and renewed friendships replaced the pleasures of travel.

Roger's deafness deepened despite a cochlear implant. Once gregarious, he steadily became less social, but remained an unmitigated optimist. Rosalie was the extrovert, always available to help older neighbours, kind and friendly to all.

Le Duc and his siblings began to see a shift in her manner by her mid-seventies, a decade ago. Gifts were never right, former pleasures did not satisfy, and she became critical of Roger, driving him to tears on occasion. A move to a retirement home three years ago brought welcome relief from grocery shopping and meal preparation, and many of their friends already lived in the building.

Eighteen months ago, Rosalie became vocal about her escalating discontent. She announced to all that she "wanted to throw him in the river". Her symptoms—uncharacteristic aggression, forgetfulness and some obsessive behaviours—were diagnosed as early-stage dementia.

"In sickness and in health", they once vowed, but debilitation had overtaken a close, loving marriage, and she no longer wanted the job. Roger's response was that this was "a phase" of hers. Because he now had Parkinson's, he moved to a long-term care facility adjacent to their retirement home just before Christmas. Rosalie shares their assisted-living suite with a new roommate.

While everyone agreed Roger needed skilled care, what shocked her children was her insistence that, whether he would be in the same building or not, she was done with caregiving. The "and" was excised from the two Ros.

It seems that love is tied to the brain as well as the heart, and that its associated virtues, devotion and duty, are similarly eroded by cognitive impairment. Uneven aging may last for decades, while the same partner, always healthier, is willing to take care of the other— but in some cases, a late-life form of leapfrog sets in.

I have also seen the healthier partner up and leave, but that is often a reflection of years of a less-than- happy relationship. No one saw Rosalie's resignation coming.

When her dementia recedes, as it will at times, I wonder whether Rosalie misses those close and passionate years. I suspect so, because I have saved cards she sent on our wedding anniversaries, in which she wrote of the strength of a couple's love, and its importance to family life. She enjoined us to take care of a precious gift.

Her personality changes are more difficult for their children than the sight of their father's infirmity; her inability to summon a once-intense love distresses them. She needs their love precisely at the time she is unable extend it herself. Her two sons and daughter are attentive and sensitive to her plight, but they hope that absence truly makes the heart—even one dented by time—fonder. On a recent good day, Rosalie admitted that she missed Robert.

After my father's death, I found a note in his jacket pocket on which he had written, "Old age is an unkind thief; he takes what we value most."

At no time has that melancholy metaphor seemed more apt.


angiemanzi said…
My biggest fear. I came to marriage later in life, I was two days shy of my 59th birthday. I married a man whom I love dearly, 10 1/2 years my senior, after a 15 year courtship (love that word, neither of us were ready to commit, he for the second time, me for the first). I lost both my parents within six months of each other and just after I buried them both, he thought he was ready to marry again. We are both healthy albeit with the typical problems that arise with age, I am now 65, still working and active but slowed somewhat by arthritic issues, he is retired and to my thinking does not get enough activity, but by and large we are fine. I lost my mother to Alzheimer's and I am ever mindful of what it does to a person, I am so afraid that I will go the same way and he will be unable to care for himself should I become sick. This sounds like a bit of a ramble which I suppose it is, but your post forced me to respond. Thank you for it and letting me run on.
Laura Jantek said…
your posts on aging are so spot on -- sensible, terrifying and deeply moving
Madame Là-bas said…
What a sad story! It must be hard for the family to deal with the change in the relationship. We can not count on anything in our old age. It is a frightening idea but one that we must deal with. This series has been thought-provoking. Thank-you.
Such a sad and cautionary tale! These things do happen unfortunately. The mental changes I think are the hardest to deal with. I hope the family is receiving support and care to help them deal with the changes. It is exhausting to stay patient and compassionate in the face of mental changes/illness - this I know first hand. But it is vital for all parties involved.
Anonymous said…
Wow, Duchesse, thank you once again for shining a light into a dark corner. You give me much to think about and help me to understand that there are many other travelers down a similar path. Laura
susayoun said…
Your topics and thoughts are always so pertinent. Thank you for shining a light on this very difficult topic.
Hummingbird5 said…
I don't know what to do about the inevitability of physical and/or mental decline. I wish I could achieve some level of peace, but the fear and sadness only increases. Thank you for this discussion, Duchesse. I wish the best possible for this family. For all of us.
Duchesse said…
angniemanzi: I appreciate your "running on". It is only by naming these concerns that we can direct our energies, both personally and in terms of health policy.

Hummingbird 5: I keep thinking of the Beatle's lyric for "The End": "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make". But I also see that there may come a time,for anyone, when what we humans call "love" is compromised by cognitive impairment.

And the love her family feels for both parents remains in place, so for me the lesson is, love while you can.
une femme said…
Situations like this are something we don't think or talk about enough, IMO. These sad turns of events (dementia, dissolution of emotional bonds) highlight why it's so important to have a social support network beyond one's spouse, whether children, other family or friends.
My FIL cared for his wife for many many years before we were aware of her Alzheimers...when he passed away we realized how he covered up for her and we we saddened that we had not picked up on the subtle clues that were there just beneath the surface.
My MIL is in a full time care facility now and only knows her son, my husband, because he goes twice a week to visit.
Your father's note and quote are spot on...it oozes with melancholy.
Sad but so true.

Duchesse said…
hostess: It's especially sad. that, in many moments. Rosalie seems entirely aware, so it is difficult for the family to see what is dementia and what is coming from full awareness. But yet, like your husband, they are losing the person they knew.
Other than medical progress, I see no solution but elective assisted suicide and a living will. I don't think there is any point in remaining physiologically 'alive' without a functioning brain.

In happier news, there seems to have been some significant progress in treatment for MS.
Susan said…
My mother in law has the early stages of dementia and we have seen all that you describe. While her husband predeceased her, she has been impatient and sometimes downright rude and ugly to other family members. It has been tough. And you are so right, that when she needs love most, she has pushed most family away.
I have done a lot of reading about dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Recent studies are discovering that the very earliest stages of these diseases begin much earlier than suspected. It is possible that when your friend began to say she was sick of her husband, although she appeared healthy, she was already displaying the symptoms.

Either way, it is unbearable heartache for her family and friends - and for herself. These are the scenarios that we cannot begin to anticipate when we are in tender youth. Thank you for calling attention to it.
Duchesse said…
Loretta: As I wrote in the first sentence, Rosalie is my mother-in-law. She did not voice those thoughts about her husband until relatively recently.

Ten years before, she was sometimes uncharacteristically blunt, but was still a loving wife. I now see, as you say, her remarks may have been the early signs.

It's tricky, though. When a person functions (apparently) with mental acuity, early dementia is not on a family radar. I also wonder about geriatric depression, which is also more common than people think.

Eve Benoit said…
I am late in this conversation, sorry !

I admit that I do not know this family and that I do not know what "senility" entails but I cannot help but feel for this poor woman. After a lifetime of giving and providing support, when she needed support herself at last, what was expected of her was yet more giving and yet less compensation. A deaf and invalid spouse would have been a terrible burden for a person with diminished energy. It is no wonder that she finally rejected it all. Duchesse, you a probably right in supposing depression.

As always, I thank you for a tought-provoking post on a difficult subject !

Duchesse said…
Eve: Yes, care can simply become overwhelming- even for a person with full cognitive capacity. I wonder whether we should rewrite the traditional vows some of us take, in our healthy twenties , when we say, "in sickness and in health"- given how long we may live.

But at the same time, I would like to add that Ro and Ro were in a facility where a considerable amount of care was (and is) provided to each of them, and her children, two of whom live nearly, are there nearly daily. She was not without love and support when she began to make her wishes to separate known.

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