(NEW YORK) -- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson stunned 700 Club viewers this week when he said divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease was justifiable.
Robertson, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and former Republican presidential candidate, said he wouldn't "put a guilt trip" on someone for divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease, calling Alzheimer's "a kind of death."
The remarks sparked outrage throughout the Alzheimer's community.
"To condone abandoning one's spouse in the throes of this mind-robbing illness is absurd," said Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer's Center in Tampa.
"While Alzheimer's certainly affects the dynamic of relationships, marriage vows are taken in sickness and in health."
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease – a figure expected to rise sharply as baby boomers enter their older years. And about 80 percent of Alzheimer patients who live at home are cared for by family members.
Robertson's comments came after a viewer asked what advice he should give a friend who had been seeing another woman since his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson said.
The progressive symptoms of Alzheimer's can put stress on relationships, leaving caregivers to cope with the loss of intimacy and other aspects of adult romantic relationships, said Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics and assistant director of the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia.
"There's no question that this is an issue," said Karlawish. "But to a spouse who's struggling with this kind of issue, I would want to say after the patient has left this world, you want be able to look back and say you treated that person with dignity."
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