Away From Her

Away From Her is a bittersweet film about a woman named Fiona (played by Julie Christie) suffering from Alzheimer's Disease who, notwithstanding the misgivings of her devoted husband of over 40 years, checks herself into a nursing home. The home has a policy forbidding family members to visit for the initial month, so that the patient can become acclimated to the new surroundings. During that period, Fiona forgets her husband and falls in love with one of the other patients. The film includes some funny scenes, such as when Fiona's husband Grant and Fiona's boyfriend's wife (played by Olympia Dukakis) try their own romance, but it is overall, profoundly sad, as one would expect from the subject matter.

News reports now indicate that Justice O'Connor's husband John has fallen in love with another Alzheimer's patient in his Arizona assisted living facility. The stories quote the O'Connors' son Scott, who reports that Justice O'Connor is pleased that her husband is comfortable in his current surroundings. Scott O'Connor's willingness to talk to reporters about this story complicates what would otherwise be a simple case of inexcusable press interference with a profoundly private issue. It's possible that he talked to the press as a means of getting ahead of the story once it had become a matter of public knowledge, in which case it seems that the appropriate reaction is one of disgust with whoever thought this was a newsworthy story.

However, given the remarkable openness of the statements attributed to Scott O'Connor, it's also possible that he hopes his father's experience can serve as a teaching opportunity. The latest evidence (summarized here) indicates that one in seven adults aged 71 or older has dementia, which means that most Americans will, at some point in their lives, either suffer this debilitating symptom or see a close relative or friend suffer with it. As numerous works of memoir and fiction relate, the descent into dementia is almost always tragic, but when it is complete, there is at least the comfort that the patient is so "far gone" as to be beyond suffering.

Stories like those involving the fictional Fiona and the real-life John O'Connor paint a more complicated picture. That patients who have lost the memory of who they were can nonetheless find comfort in human connections provides some hope that the journey into dementia is not so much a descent as it is simply a profound change. At the same time, though, the fact that patients with advanced Alzheimer's form familiar-looking relationships undercuts our ability to assure ourselves that they are beyond suffering.

Justice O'Connor has not spoken publicly about John O'Connor's relationship with the patient at his care facility, and one hopes (vainly, to be sure), that the press will not hound her for a comment. In the past, she has spoken openly about her husband's disease and the role it played in her decision to retire from the Court. It is also not unreasonable to suppose that her son consulted with her before agreeing to talk to the press about the current situation. In either event, Justice O'Connor's grace in absorbing what I can only imagine must be an extraordinarily painful blow simply underscores the loss the nation felt when, still at the height of her powers, she stepped down to care for a husband who would soon be beyond her help. And those who (like myself) valued the moderating influence she exerted during her final years of active service, can only lament that the Court seems bent on moving ever farther away from her.

Posted by Mike Dorf