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The Toughest Decision: When a Caregiver Can No Longer Cope

A caregiver's story

But you can only pack in so much living into six hours a day. Carolyn couldn't watch Mike constantly the remaining 18 hours, and she couldn't leave him by himself. The wandering, the dressing, the conversations that went nowhere: It was all too much. Even with the help of day care, Carolyn felt like she was having rolling nervous breakdowns. "If I don't have some time to myself, I'm going to be as goofy as he is," she said.

When she heard that the Douglas Care Center would start offering 24-hour care for Alzheimer's patients, she decided it was time for Mike to move in — another thing that the "old Mike" wouldn't have tolerated. "When he was diagnosed [in 2005], he said he'd rather be put down than end up in a nursing home," she said. She tried telling Mike about the plan, but it didn't really sink in. Her close friends supported her decision, but her kids wondered why she was in such a rush. Carolyn asked herself a thousand times if she was doing the right thing. "This is tearing me apart," she said as Mike sat on the living room couch, his hands behind his head and his eyes pointed toward the wall.

A final visit

Shortly before Mike entered the care center, Carolyn took him to the Moose lodge for Thursday-night hamburgers, a weekly tradition going back 17 years. He smiled as old friends came up to greet him. "How are you doing?" he'd say, not calling anyone by name. "Socializing is the only skill he has left," Carolyn explained later. "Seeing people that he knows is really the only thing that he can enjoy." Mike mostly kept quiet as he ate his hamburger, but he did get up a couple of times to wander around the lodge, as if checking it out for the last time.

In late April, Mike finally shuffled through the front door of the care facility, his nervous wife and children accompanying him. "Everyone was on edge, trying to make conversation and keep things light," Carolyn said. As they walked down the hallway, it seemed like Mike was about to cry — which would have been Carolyn's cue to completely lose it. "But he recovered pretty well," Carolyn said. "That's just a testament to his strength." A couple of staff members soon asked Mike to help move some furniture, and Carolyn saw her chance to leave. "Coming home to a house without him was so different," she recalled a few days later. "Everything in my life will be different."

After a solid night's sleep, Carolyn returned to the care center, fearing the worst. "I worried that all hell would break lose," she said. But she didn't see rattled staff members or turned-over furniture. A nurse told her that Mike had wandered the halls at night, complaining that his little girl was kicking his back as he tried to sleep. But he wasn't angry. Carolyn saw him sitting at a table with five other residents. He was working on a big piece of chocolate cake. "He seemed more interested in getting that cake eaten than in talking to me," she said. And when she got up to leave, he didn't try to go with her.

Chris Woolston is a freelance health writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Reader's Digest.

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