Alzheimer’s and the human person’s inherent dignity and right to life

Colleen Carroll Campbell

By Dave Andrusko

Yesterday, at www.prolifeperspective.com National Right to Life President Carol Tobias offered many insights into the tragic murder/suicide of Charles Darwin Snelling, who killed his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife of 61 years, Adrienne. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell explains, the case assumed particular prominence because just a few  months before he killed his wife and took his own life, Snelling wrote an essay for The New York Times in which he described the “redemption” he had found in “learning how to nurture” his wife since her dementia diagnosis six years ago.

Campbell reminds her readers of something I did not know: they left behind five children and 11 grandchildren.

But the other reason there are wider ramifications to this tragedy is the response his actions received: “a nationwide rush to cast Snelling’s story as a sort of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the elder set,” as Campbell describes it.

Campbell has written numerous columns on Alzheimer’s. Her own father battled the disease for a dozen-plus years, so she is fully aware and in no ways minimizes the enormous strain this disease puts on the caretakers.

But in her very thoughtful column, Campbell makes powerful distinctions that too often get blurred.

First and foremost is a

“troubling double standard: the idea that behavior we would regard as cruel, selfish and criminal under any other circumstance is acceptable, even commendable, when directed to demented elders.”

Campbell describes this as “the trend of glorifying murder-suicides among elders.”

And part of the explanation why this occurs is the assumption that the woman (it often is a woman who is killed) consents. According to the research of one expert Campbell consulted, “most women who die this way ‘are unaware and do not consent’ to their deaths.”

Commonsense would tell you the husband is likely depressed and exhausted, and that is the case, according to Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida psychology professor. She tells Campbell, “I believe that even though Mr. Snelling and his wife were intertwined and devoted to each other, the act was one of depression and desperation.”

And while rare, such cases appear to be on the rise, Cohen says. Thus it is “critical to screen for depression and talk with caregivers about their desires to commit such acts,” Cohen says. “Depression is blinding.”

The most important contribution Campbell makes is in her penultimate paragraph.

“Equally critical is the fortification of support networks for exhausted caregivers, who too often labor in isolation from their extended families and a wider culture that treats elder care as a trivial pursuit. The vast majority of these caregivers respond to the frailty of their demented loved ones not with violence but with quiet, faithful service, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.”

They are the true heroes, she writes, of the Alzheimer’s battle because

“theirs are the real love stories worth celebrating. And it’s past time we started recognizing their sacrifices for what they are: a powerful testament to the truth that the human person’s inherent dignity and right to life are gifts no disease, not even Alzheimer’s, can take away.”

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