Alzheimer’s and Politics: Ralph’s Non-Vote

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Well I just got back from voting. Super Tuesday. A big deal.

I live in a voting district so politically lopsided that only candidates from one party (and not mine) run for national and state office. Usually my vote is so irrelevant that I have been known to write in “Anyone But…” on more than one occasion. So, as depressing as this political season has been, I felt a little twinge of excitement knowing that for a change my vote will actually matter.

I asked Ralph if he’d like to vote. After all, he listens to Public Radio every morning and watches the news every night. At various times he has declared Candidate X is definitely his candidate, or sometimes Candidate Y until I remind him he is for Candidate X (whom I am backing). He has laughed at stupid campaign ads and made astute comments about various candidates’ stupid statements. He has always voted.

Ralph said no, he didn’t feel like voting today. Then he asked what the issue was. I said the presidential primary. He still wasn’t interested.

His answer depressed me incredibly. In so many ways politics has defined our relationship from the start and now it is defining us in a different way.

When we met in the early 1970s, as the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War were both unraveling, our romance centered on our shared political values. Or rather me sharing Ralph’s. We worked in the alternative press, and Ralph was passionate about his views. I remember sitting beside him on a couch as he went on and on about some theory or other while all I wanted was for him to shut up and kiss me.

Cut to the 1980s. Married with kids, and arguing a lot—a lot!!—mostly about decision-making; I found him controlling and he found me unsupportive. What we did not argue about was politics. We were both part of the small minority that voted for John Anderson in 1980 (although I had to look on the Internet just now to remember his name) and we both thought Reagan was not all there (little did we know, ironically enough). Our political agreement was important; I told myself that I could never be married to someone if I didn’t share his political beliefs

In the 1990s came the big shift. We moved to the country (another big argument that lasted for years) and midway through Clinton’s second term Ralph began to call himself a libertarian. “I’m not a Republican. I am Libertarian,” became his mantra. He was as passionate as a Libertarian as he had been when he was a socialist. I did not become a Libertarian, however, and was no longer susceptible to being swayed by any man.

In the first year of the new century, politics turned out to be a wonderful vehicle for arguments. We couldn’t watch the news together without fireworks, and the family dinner table became the set for great shouting matches, as our kids will attest. We railed against each other about taxes and the Mideast (although we still agreed on most social issues). Of course, under the political veneer our arguments were often about unspoken personal grudges and resentments we each nursed.

And now here we are in the most heated political atmosphere imaginable, and Ralph has gone lukewarm. He wants to be interested I think because he asks me frequently, “Who’s running again?” He cannot keep any of the candidates straight, although that may have more to do their deficiencies than with any cognitive deficiency on Ralph’s part.

The thing is, he would have voted today for whomever I suggested. While he listens to the news nonstop, very little of it sticks with him. This is not only a matter of memory. In part, his attention is turned more inward, but also he has a certainly mental hesitancy as if he doesn’t trust his own instincts. As a result I can easily convince him to agree with me, not only about the candidates, but also about any analysis of world events.

He now listens to me rail the way I used to listen when he railed. I admit I don’t mind being having an enthralled audience of one. I like being agreed with. I like being the one spouting righteous certainties. But this strange reversal is more bitter than sweet.

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8 thoughts on “Alzheimer’s and Politics: Ralph’s Non-Vote

  1. Insightful post, thanks for sharing. This brings up an interesting point for me, if one would discourage their loved one with dementia from voting if the person was fixated on a candidate they would never vote for without the disease.

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    1. Thanks Joy. Yes, politics does seem to highlight complicated ethical possibilities that arise around decision making and dementia. I can easily imagine the fixation you describe. What would be my obligation to the loved one and what would be my obligation to society. Could I be sure I was not reacting out of my own self-interest, and if so would that matter?

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  2. Thank you again for your timely post. My husband and I have been on the same page politically from day one and I could not imagine being with someone who had the opposite view. We are still both liberal Democrats, but I do notice that I enjoy the comedy shows more than he does. We watch them together, but I am laughing while he doesn’t always “get it.” It’s a bit sad, but I remind myself that I am still full of gratitude that he still can do so many things at age 86. Last week his drivers license expired and I thought it would be a big deal for him to hand me the keys. He didn’t even argue with me when I told him that I would be driving now. I’m the one who mourned the loss as it was indeed the “end of an era.”

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    1. Yes, I think we spouses may sometimes mourn more than our husbands/wives because we see the end of eras for ourselves. What is ironic is that now that Ralph is back in political sync with me, I almost miss the fights.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post. Dad and I used to have huge political debates. I remember him once thumping the bar and declaring, “My God, I’ve brought up a communist!” I said I was a socialist, but maybe slightly more to the left than he was. I was proud to have been brought up with a sense of justice and fairness. He lost interest in politics later. I’m not sure if it was the dementia or his horror that Tony Blair had lied to make us go to war in Iraq. I think the latter.
    He was always a staunch supporter of independence for Scotland and when it came to the referendum we knew there was no way he could cast his vote in the polling station and applied for a postal vote for him. It was one of the hardest things to do telling him the vote had gone against independence. He looked so devastated. It was maybe the only time I was glad he had dementia because he forgot about it soon after and we never mentioned it again.

    Sorry, I meant to comment on your post not chunter on about dad but it brought back the memories. Do you think more people will go out and vote this time around? It’s certainly a different scenario from usual.
    Loved that line about no longer being susceptible to being swayed by any man! And the bit about Ralph being passionate about politics and you just wanting to be kissed. He must have got round to it at some point 🙂

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    1. Yes, there was some kissing involved.
      Love your story about your father. This is off subject, but my step-son is a professional bagpiper and makes kilts for a living.

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