Scott O’Connor, the son of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, revealed in an interview last week that his father, John O’Connor, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 17 years ago, had fallen in love with another woman. The woman lives with him in the same nursing home.
This happens frequently to people with Alzheimer’s. They develop close relationships with the people they live with; we call them “new attachments.” They adjust to the environment and attach themselves to others, just like all the rest of us. These attachments can be anyone, the same-sex, opposite sex, another patient, a caregiver, or even a beloved pet. It turns out that dementia can steal almost everything, but the desire for intimacy persists.
I didn’t like some of Justice O’Connor’s opinions, but I always respected her. That respect grew enormously when I read how she has let go of a person with whom she has spent most of her life. When Justice O’Connor retired from the Court, it was in part to care for her husband. She says she’s thrilled that that he is relaxed, happy, and comfortable living where he is and not complaining.
It is the ultimate act of love and caring to be able to say, “I want you to be happy and at peace as you spend your final days.” To be able to say goodbye to the relationship it was, to look at your love holding another’s hand and only wanting what’s best for them.
Love is the great mystery of human experience — it is brilliant, awe inspiring, sometimes tragic, but it’s a connection that is tenacious. As long as we live, we need this most basic human relationship. Young love is sparkling magic, and old love is richer and more precious. I see in Sandra Day O’Connor a moral exemplar who is helping us identify new ways of being in love when you’re older.
We are living longer, we are a generation that is more sexually liberated, and we are aging. Sandra Day O’Connor’s love for her husband who sees her only in memory has reframed for us all what love is all about.