By Bob Meadows
December 03, 2007 12:00 PM

Sometimes, when retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visits her husband, John, at the assisted-living facility where he gets round-the-clock care for Alzheimer’s disease, another Alzheimer’s patient named Kay joins them. Kay sits beside John, and the two hold hands like love-struck teens. O’Connor, 77, doesn’t mind. John, 77, no longer recognizes his wife of 54 years, and besides, since sparking a romance with Kay, his days at Huger Mercy Living Center in Phoenix, where he has lived since 2006, have never been happier. “Sandra sees this as a bright spot in his life that would otherwise be dark and lonely,” says former FBI director William Webster, a longtime family friend. “She felt if this gave him a little sunshine, why, that’s great.”

O’Connor’s family came forward Nov. 8 about John’s new relationship to shed light on Alzheimer’s, an incurable brain disorder that robs victims of cognitive function. Patients still respond to smiles and warm gestures, so it’s common for them to detach from loved ones and become close with strangers, says John Durbin, a regional director with the Alzheimer’s Association. “As heartbreaking as it is, that’s how Alzheimer’s works and why it’s such a dreaded disease,” he says.

O’Connor retired last year to care for John, who was diagnosed 17 years ago. She visits him frequently and also keeps busy as a highly sought speaker and giving lectures at the Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “She’s so resilient,” says Ivan Fong, a former law clerk. “She accepts reality. She’s happy because he’s happy. That’s the highest form of love.”