Alzheimer’s and the Call to Exercise Virtue

By Dave Andrusko

New York Times columnist David Brooks

Last week the New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer wrote a much commented upon story about Charles Snelling, who had killed his wife and took his own life. I did not see the Times story, but had read the Washington Post account.

On Monday the Times’ David Brooks wrote an absolutely must-read column. It is not perfect, but “Respect the Future” untangles a lot of issues that were overlooked in the original stories and reader responses (which, as he writes, “make for fascinating reading”).

Brooks explains that Snelling had responded to his call to readers for essays evaluating their own lives (“Life Reports”) with “a remarkable 5,000-word reflection.” To quote Brooks

“Snelling was a successful entrepreneur who spent decades serving his community. He was redeemed, he  reported, six years ago when his beloved wife, Adrienne, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. ‘She took  care of me in every possible way she could for 55 years. The last six years have been my turn,’ Snelling wrote.

“’We continue to make a life together, living together in the full sense of the word; going about our life, hand in  hand, with everyone lending a hand, as though nothing was wrong at all,’ he continued.

“He believed that caring for his wife made him a richer, fuller human being: ‘It’s not noble, it’s not sacrificial and  it’s not painful. It’s just right in the scheme of things. … Sixty-one years ago, a partner to our marriage who knew how to nurture, nurtured a partner who needed nurturing. Now, 61 years later, a partner who is learning how to nurture is nurturing a partner who needs nurturing.’”

“On March 29, less than four months after we published his essay online, Snelling killed his wife and then himself.”

Brooks explains that of those who wrote in, “The majority support or sympathize with Snelling’s double-killing.”  Some “were impressed by the Romeo-and-Juliet-style ending that Snelling created.”

But “Others, more likely women than men, were upset by Snelling’s decision,” Brooks notes.

“A woman from Canada who has spent 25 years nursing Alzheimer’s patients, argued that none of us have the right to decide that another person’s life is worthless. Some argued that the nurturing process at the end of life, like the nurturing process at the beginning, requires patience and that those who are desperate should seek help, not a firearm.”

Brooks’ objective, of course, is not to attack Snelling (“Everyone approaches this case with sadness and trepidation”),  but it’s clear to me that he has no sympathy for those who “argued that people in these circumstances should be able to end their spouse’s life legally, so they don’t then feel compelled to end their own.”

What had happened? (Pay particular attention to the last sentence.) Brooks writes,

“…I can come to only one conclusion: Either Snelling was so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. I won’t rehearse the religious arguments against murder and suicide, many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God. Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given.”

It is impossible to see this double tragedy apart from the never-ceasing campaign by those who wish to “assist” suicides—as advocated by the “several” quoted above.

Brooks makes a hugely important point: a few months before, Snelling wrote  in his “Life Report” that “his life as his wife’s caretaker was rich and humanizing. By last week, he apparently no longer believed that.”

Brooks adds, “But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now.” This cannot be emphasized enough.

Brooks’ conclusion is eloquent and heart-wrenching, and, without “taking sides,” speaks a powerful truth.

“It seems wrong to imagine that you have mastery over everything you will feel and believe. It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding.

“Furthermore, I bought the arguments that Snelling made in that essay: that his wife’s illness had become a call for him to exercise virtue and to serve as an example for others; that people are joined by suffering, and that the life of a community is enriched by the hard tasks placed before it; that dependency is the normal state of affairs.”

You can read Brooks’ column at

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