An Imaginary Marriage


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“Henry! Get your keys, we gotta go!”

“I can’t find my keys, Irene! Where did you put them!”

“I didn’t put your keys anywhere! Where did you lose them!”

They argued like a married couple, but they were not actually married. Jeff and Ellen were two of my residents who believed that they had been married for years. In fact, they usually called each other by their actual spouse’s names (Henry and Irene) instead of their real names.

Still, they each responded to the other’s call. “Henry! Get your shoes on, we gotta go,” Ellen would call. “Irene! Help me with my shoes!” Jeff would yell back.

I happily found that, instead of being distraught, Ellen and Jeff’s adult children were agreeable about the “union” between the two. The relationship between Ellen and Jeff consisted mostly of trying to convince the other person to “drive” them home. This was actually a helpful union for the staff because the pair would bug each other about “going home” instead of getting other residents worked up.

I have found that many adult children become uncomfortable when relationships develop between their parents with dementia. Sometimes, when the actual spouses are still alive–like in this case–the adult children suggest that it’s “unfair” to the living spouse.

But, that’s dementia. It’s not a “fair” group of diseases. And, sometimes, a little bit of confusion provides a person with a partner–and that can be for the best.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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