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The Toughest Decision: When a Caregiver Can No Longer Cope

A caregiver's story

Even by the standards of Wyoming coal mines and oil fields, Mike Eberspecher is a tough guy. He once nearly lost an arm to blood poisoning after getting another man's tooth lodged in his fist. A big chunk of his right ear had to be surgically reattached after a different guy tried to bite it off. He used to bet newcomers to the oil fields that he could lift the drill pipes sticking out of the wells. Anyone who doubted him was soon out some cash.

Now 66, Mike is still built like a coal truck. His graying hair cut short, his mustache neatly trimmed, he seems ready to take on the next gushing well or troublemaker. But spend time with him, and you quickly learn that he's no longer attached to this world. He'll tell you that chunks of crumbled asphalt in a parking lot are actually antelope droppings (not an uncommon sight around his hometown of Douglas), he'll insist that somebody's walking through an empty room, and he'll claim that his old high school friends are plotting to steal his nonexistent gold. But he has moments of insight, too. "I have Alzheimer's," he'll say apologetically. "It's a real bummer."

For the last few years, it's been Carolyn Eberspecher's turn to be the tough one. As Mike's disease worsened, Carolyn, 60, joined the ranks of the 10 million Americans caring for a family member with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Caregiving means one hard decision after another. When do you take away the car keys? When do you stop leaving them by themselves? When do you let go?

The toughest call

As the snow around Douglas started to melt last spring, Carolyn made the toughest call yet: It was time to put her husband of 35 years in a 24-hour-care facility. "I just hope he doesn't hate me for this," she said before the move. "He always provided such a great life for us. I can't imagine what it will be like to drive away and leave him behind."

Alzheimer's disease sends personalities careening in strange directions. Mousy people can become boisterous; Mike went the opposite direction. The back-slapping thrill-seeker became gentle and soft-spoken. He started watching TV for hours on end, an activity that the old Mike — the ace waterskier and recreational pilot — would never have tolerated. Until recently, he could switch between Fox News and Westerns by pushing a single button on the remote. But as his Alzheimer's worsened, that button became hard to find. Eventually, he lost it completely.

For the first time in their marriage, Carolyn found little comfort in having him around. "You want to think that person who used to be so unbelievably strong and smart is still there, but he's not," she said.

Before long, Mike became perplexed by his underpants. He couldn't put them on without getting all twisted up. He did manage to put on a pair of button-fly jeans one morning — completely backward, which isn't easy. That's the frustrating, exhausting thing about Alzheimer's. Even simple things are no longer so simple. He even lost his ability to stay put. One cold morning, Mike wandered out of the house without a jacket and started shuffling toward town. He made it about a mile before someone picked him up and brought him home. After that, the local police fitted him with a tracking bracelet.

All alone

Carolyn can help Mike put on his pants. And she can push the button on the remote. Or find the light in the bathroom. But doing all of those things every day, well, that's rough duty.

As Mike's condition worsened, she shut down her travel agency office and started working from home. Even though she could see her daughter's house from her driveway, Carolyn had to do almost all of the caregiving herself. Mike and Carolyn's two sons — Kelly, a patent attorney and former Navy SEAL living in Chicago, and Clint, who works odd jobs in Casper, Wyo., to support his hobby of full-contact cage fighting — weren't around much. A friend did come by every Sunday to take Mike to the Mormon church, and another friend would regularly take him to the local truck stop for cinnamon rolls.

But Carolyn didn't get real relief until she enrolled Mike in an adult day care program. For six hours a day at a cost of $2 an hour — a half-off discount because Carolyn wasn't fully employed — Mike could chat with the nurses and watch bingo games. Carolyn used the time to run errands, have lunch with friends and, eventually, take a part-time job as a hospital receptionist.

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