A Story of Adaptation: After 42 Years of Marriage, Hanover Couple Deals With Dementia
Marie Esselborn, of Hanover, rides the bus from her apartment to have lunch in Lebanon in April. Since her husband, Al, moved into a care facility two years ago, Marie lives in an apartment and does not have the desire to cook for one. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie and Al Esselborn say goodbye as she prepares to leave after a visit at Wheelock Terrace in Hanover. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Sand piper figurines sit atop a dresser in Al Esselborn’s room, a reminder of days with Marie spent watching real sand pipers on the beach in Ogunquit, Maine, where they vacationed for almost 30 years. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Al Esselborn looks out the window of his room at Wheelock Terrace in Hanover in July. He will have lived at the assisted living facility for two full years on September 27. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
After a day of running errands and making phone calls, Marie Esselbron relaxes at her apartment. She stays busy for much of the day but is often tired by late afternoon. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie Esselborn walks to the bus stop in Hanover in April. The bus system is her main mode of transportation. She also relies on getting rides from friends. For short distances, she walks. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Above: Marie bids Al, her husband of 42 years, goodbye in his room after they returned from a lunch out with her brother their friend in May. Earlier, as Marie accompanied Al on the elevator on the way to his room, he gave her a series of compliments. “You look so good, Marie,” he said. “Your complexion, and your outfit. It looks good.” Marie, who beamed quietly at the affection, bid him goodbye with a kiss and a hug and closed the door quietly behind her as he laid down to nap. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie Esselborn reaches out to touch Al during a brunch for The Alzheimer’s Learning Experience for Students, or TALES, program at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center in Lebanon in April. TALES is a program that connects Dartmouth undergraduates with people with Alzheimer’s Disease, allowing them to get to know each other as individuals and enrich each others’ lives. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie Esselborn reaches out to assist Al as he sits down in the shade at Wheelock Terrace. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie Esselborn takes a dance class, one of two she takes each week, in Hanover last May. Dancing is one of the ways Marie copes with stress, keeping her active as well as serving as an emotional outlet. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie and Al Esselborn have lunch with Marie's brother Simon Smith, of Weston, Mass., and their friend Margery Phillips, of Norwich, Vt., in Quechee in May. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie and Al Esselborn take a short walk outside before saying goodbye at the end of her visit to see him at Wheelock Terrace in Hanover. She visits him for several hours in the morning three times a week.
(Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie and Al Esselborn head outside to get some fresh air before saying goodbye at the end of her visit to see him at Wheelock Terrace in April. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
An old note from Marie Esselborn to her husband Al is pinned on his bulletin board in his room at Wheelock Terrace. Marie wrote it in 2008, right after Al had received a diagnosis for dementia, which is a symptom of cognitive losses. (
Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Early evening light from the bedroom window falls across a old picture of Al Esselborn on Marie's dresser in her apartment in Hanover. The picture is snipped from a print taken somewhere in the first ten years of their marriage. They were married in September 1971. (
Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Marie Esselborn hugs Lynn Grieger goodbye after a day spent together going out to lunch and catching up in Hanover in July. Grieger is a longtime friend from Manchester, Vt., where Marie and Al lived for 23 years before moving to Hanover. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
After a day of re-arranging, Marie Esselborn places a picture in the window of her modest Hanover apartment in May. As she turned down her bed for the night around 7:30 p.m., she stopped for a moment. "It's such a small bed," she said. "This is around the time I miss Al." (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Several days a week, Marie Esselborn takes the bus to see her husband, Al.
They both live in Hanover. She has an apartment not far from the center of town. He lives at Wheelock Terrace, an assisted living facility on Buck Road.
This September, they will have been married for 42 years. It will also mark two years since they decided to live apart.
Their story, however, is not so much one of sadness or loss, but rather adaptation.
“I struggle. It’s not always easy,” Marie said after one of their visits together. “But we’re thriving. We’re both thriving.”
Al, who is 88, has dementia. His disease was diagnosed in 2008 and his mental acuity has steadily declined since. For the first few years, Marie cared for him as best she could, until she could no longer. Physically and emotionally exhausted, she had driven herself to the point of collapse. During one sleepless stretch, she was hospitalized three times in one week.
So, the couple decided to live apart.
The decision on whether a loved one should go to assisted living or nursing care is a complex one, often pitting the practical concerns against emotional ones, said Jeanne Childs, chaplain at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center. Couples and families must consider what care they can provide, what they can afford and what they can tolerate, emotionally, with overwhelming feelings of love and guilt. Conflict is almost always present. Even when both people are mentally competent, the times when couples agree is not so common.
“Very rare,” Childs said.
Al and Marie Esselborn were among the rare exceptions. Not that the decision was easy, but after struggling for years together, they made a mutual decision about what to do.
“Marie said, ‘Al, I think this will be a good place for you,’ ” Al said, leaning on his walker one morning in July. “That was her concern, that I be cared for.”
He trusted her and went along with her recommendation. Al admits that he misses her sometimes, but he doesn’t regret their decision. He believes that it has served them both well. At Wheelock Terrace, his meals are provided for him. He has attendants to ensure that, in his less lucid moments, he is not a safety threat to himself or those around him. Meanwhile, Marie has gained the freedom and time to concentrate on herself, something she hadn’t done since her husband’s health began to deteriorate.
She takes dance classes several times a week. She attends support groups for caregivers through Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
And then they have their time together. They play games, watch television (Downton Abbey was a recent indulgence), take walks and occasionally go out to restaurants. On average, they spend about 15 hours a week together, a balance they struck after months of trial and error, feeling their way through being apart for the first time in their lives.
The change has been a disruptive, emotional transition for two people who were used to being with each other almost every hour of every day. Al, a former Navy midshipman, met Marie in New York, where they spent much of their lives. She taught grade school in Long Island for 19 years before moving to Manchester, Vt., where they had a second home, full time in 1983, eventually relocating to the Upper Valley in 2006.
They shared an apartment together at Quail Hollow Senior Living community in Lebanon for a time. But by 2010, both of them were struggling to manage Al’s dementia. He would get lost while driving. She couldn’t trust him to take care of many errands, and instead absorbed the burden herself. During the night, Marie was often awake with worry and attending to Al. After her hospitalizations, Marie and Al agreed that the best thing for both of them was to find someplace else for Al to live.
One recent Thursday morning in July, Marie walked through the entryway at Wheelock Terrace, bidding good morning to Adam, the concierge, at the entrance and saying hello to other staff members as she walked toward the guest book to sign in. She is a frequent visitor. Her signed name appears in the book every few lines — more often than anyone else.
Al’s room is on the second floor. She knocks before she enters and greets him with a pet name.
“Hi Allie,” she said.
Al was relaxing in a recliner, but stands up to give her a kiss.
Although he no longer has some memories, the emotion in their relationship has not been damaged. In some ways, it has even grown, Marie said. A pleasant side-effect of his dementia has been the loss of inhibition.
“He wouldn’t hold hands before,” she said. Since then, it “has been kind of fun.”
Finding the silver lining to their arrangement, however, has not been easy. Although he has his own apartment, Al shares the building with the other Wheelock Terrace residents. Marie and Al no longer have the same level of privacy they once enjoyed living together. She has also had to adjust to his desire to be alone.
“Sometimes, I like to be by myself,” Al said. “And other times I’m glad when she comes.”
Marie and Al see each other three or four days a week, several hours at a time. It used to be more, but they soon discovered that Al was becoming exhausted.
At the beginning, he was availing himself of every activity — exercise classes, bingo games, organized discussions of current events. He was embracing his new community. The first time he asked her to leave, Marie said, it broke her heart.
“When he first came here, I would cry so hard I thought my body would break in two,” she said. “The feelings were very strong.”
The feelings are still strong, but Marie has learned to manage. Their relationship is no weaker than it was before they began living apart, but it is different. Al is a different person than he was before the onset of his dementia. Her expectations for him have changed.
“It’s very difficult because it’s the love of my life,” Marie said. “I’m losing my best friend, my companion for 40 years. I miss him terribly. And yet, because I don’t cling to that, I can recognize the moments of joy.”
Talking about their relationship seems awkward for Al, as it might for any person entering the fifth decade of marriage to someone.
But he tries.
He is grateful for his wife. He trusts her and the decisions they have made together. He enjoys her visits and regrets when she leaves. Their situation has changed. His feelings for her have not.
“I miss her,” he said. “I love her more than ever it seems. I don’t know what more to say.”
“You did very well, Al,” Marie said.
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.