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Caring for Loved Ones Can Be Physically, Emotionally Exhausting

  • Marie Esselborn, of Hanover, speaks during an interview about the need to place her husband, Albert, in an assisted living facility due to his declining health.(Valley News - Libby March)

    Marie Esselborn, of Hanover, speaks during an interview about the need to place her husband, Albert, in an assisted living facility due to his declining health.(Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marie Esselborn fiddles with her wedding ring while  talking about the decision to move Albert, her husband of 41 years, to an assisted living community. He lives nearby and she visits him three or four times a week. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Marie Esselborn fiddles with her wedding ring while talking about the decision to move Albert, her husband of 41 years, to an assisted living community. He lives nearby and she visits him three or four times a week. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marie Esselborn, of Hanover, speaks during an interview about the need to place her husband, Albert, in an assisted living facility due to his declining health.(Valley News - Libby March)
  • Marie Esselborn fiddles with her wedding ring while  talking about the decision to move Albert, her husband of 41 years, to an assisted living community. He lives nearby and she visits him three or four times a week. (Valley News - Libby March)

Hanover — The lack of sleep had been taking its toll, but Marie Esselborn didn’t realize it until she was hospitalized three times in one week.

The doctors “thought what had happened, was that I was a perfect storm waiting to happen,” Esselborn, 78, said in an interview at her apartment in Hanover. “My brain didn’t warn me that, physically, I was in trouble.”

She had been too busy concentrating on her husband, Albert, who has dementia. His ability to handle everyday tasks, something as simple as filling up the gas tank of his car, had been declining for years and Esselborn had become his full-time caretaker.

She wanted to believe that she would be able to care for him for the rest of their days together. But in so doing, she had forgotten to take care of herself.

It’s a common situation that people find themselves in when they assume such an immense responsibility, said Caroline Moore, program leader at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Aging Resource Center.

“It’s hugely concerning,” Moore said, adding that many of the requests the center receives “is assistance for caregivers reaching a point where they are extremely overwhelmed, exhausted emotionally and realize they need to reach out for help.”

The Aging Resource Center offers support and educational programs to older adults and their caregivers. Moore hears from all kinds of people — women, men, spouses, children — and from both sides of the Connecticut River. So far this year, more than three quarters of the people who have contacted the center have had concerns about themselves, often as a caregiver, according to the center’s figures. Questions about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease account for 23 percent of the issues that people bring.

Beyond dealing with the grief of caring for a loved one who is, in many ways, no longer the person they used to be, it is also common for caregivers to suffer physical exhaustion, Moore said. They stop taking time for themselves and neglect their own health, often from lack of sleep. Sometimes they stop going to their primary care doctor or doing the routine health maintenance, such as annual screenings, that could help prevent a health crisis from happening.

“They’ve taken this vow, ’til death do us part, and they often don’t think of themselves,” Moore said. “Often, by the time we see them, their health can be going downhill.”

Esselborn first contacted the center in the fall of 2010 about getting a medical alert device that would allow her husband to call 911 in case of an emergency. For several days after that, Moore tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Esselborn. Eventually, Moore learned that Esselborn had been hospitalized.

Esselborn had become increasingly exhausted. By day, she was not only running all the errands, but correcting her husband’s mistakes when he would perform a task.

During the night, she was often awake with worry and attending to Albert. She would calm him when he awoke with concerns — a twitch in his leg, for example — that may or may not have been a real cause for worry.

“I had to keep my head on straight to know which complaints were valid,” she said.

Then her body broke down. The first time she was rushed to the hospital, it was because of a wound on her nose from recent surgery that would not stop bleeding.

A few days later, her behavior had begun to worry Albert. She’s still foggy about what happened, but she was acting in a way that convinced him to call 911 emergency.

“I was out of it,” she said.

She stayed overnight at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and was discharged the next day. A couple of days later, the scenario repeated itself. This time, the doctors kept her for two days so that she could rest.

“Apparently, I had been 48 hours without any sleep,” she said.

Since then, Esselborn has made changes that have improved her life dramatically.

She put aside time for herself, which recently has meant taking line-dancing classes. She attends three classes a week.

Esselborn also changed the “negative thinking” in her head. If Albert tried to make coffee without putting any water in the pot, she focused on his intentions rather than mistake.

“What worked most for me was, ‘Al would if he could,’ ” she said.

The most difficult change that she and her husband made was to have him live in an assisted living community. For the first time in four decades of marriage, they would not live together.

Albert has been a resident at Wheelock Terrace since September 2011 and Esselborn has an apartment at Summer Park Residences in Hanover. She visits him several times a week. They play Chinese checkers together and take exercise classes. Next week, they plan to go to a restaurant to celebrate Albert’s 88th birthday.

Living apart and watching Albert’s condition continue to decline is difficult at times, but it has been a healthy change for both of them, she said. Albert is safe and has more of a social life, and Esselborn gets the rest she needs. Her physician noted this during a checkup in February.

“The doctor said I made a 100 percent turnaround in the way I handle my stress,” she said. “I thought, ‘You’re right on. True. I’m a late bloomer.’ ”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

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