By Kathleen Gest, Local columnist
---- — Being the primary caregiver for a person with any chronic illness can be difficult and draining, but dementia is one of the most physically and emotionally exhausting illnesses a caregiver can face.
Marge Anderson's husband, Dale, was diagnosed in 1997 at the age of 64 with vascular dementia, which occurred after a series of very small and undetected strokes. Over time, the combined effect of the mini-strokes became noticeable as dementia. Vascular dementia resembles Alzheimer's disease in that it also involves a progressive degeneration of brain cells that is currently irreversible.
Vascular dementia develops when the cells in the brain are deprived of oxygen. The vascular system supplies the brain with oxygen and if there is a blockage in the vascular system, or if it is diseased, blood is prevented from reaching the brain. As a result, cells in the brain die, leading to the symptoms of dementia.
The physical demand on a caregiver increases as the disease progresses. Marge knows what the demand is like. Every year, her husband needed more and more help with everyday tasks, including eating, bathing and toileting. In addition, he began to lose his ability to speak.
The emotional toll increased steadily as Marge watched his personality slip away. The dementia-related behaviors of her husband strained the coping skills of Marge, even though she was a patient and understanding caregiver.
Marge tried to do everything herself, which was possible for a few years, when the progression of the disease was in its first stages. But dementia is a path that leads only downward. And the journey of a dementia patient can take years to complete. So finally, in 2003, Marge and her husband moved from their retirement home in Port Sanilac to be near a daughter here in Traverse City.
After the move to Traverse City in 2003, Marge utilized the Traverse City Senior Center for a few times during her husband's illness, bringing her husband to the senior center for lunch. He enjoyed coming — having lunch and getting out, being with other people. But unfortunately, Marge wasn't able to take advantage of the programs offered at the senior center for her own sake, because Dale was a wanderer and could disappear without constant supervision — she just couldn't leave him alone.
"I didn't actually know what they meant by respite — I just didn't know," Marge said. "Someone told me I could have someone come in, but I knew my husband wouldn't stand for that. And besides, I just wanted to be with him all of the time. It wasn't until 2006 that it really started to get difficult."
That was the year Marge had to place him in a care facility. Dale died in 2007, following a series of seizures. He was 74. They had been married for 25 years.
"After my husband died, I didn't do anything for a long time," Marge said. "In the spring of 2008, I came to the grief group that meets at the senior center. I came to the grief meetings, because I just needed to do something."
Since coming to the Traverse City Senior Center regularly, Marge has gotten to know more people. Marge now greets senior center visitors and members with a smile on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at the reception desk. She also participates in karaoke, which she really enjoys, and comes to Farkel (a German dice game) on the first Wednesday of each month. She would probably try line dancing, but that is one of the mornings she's at the reception desk. She finally took her first day trip recently and can pass on her experience to other interested seniors.
"The main thing for people in my situation is that they just have to get active," Marge said.
"The senior center has given me a new lease on life," Marge emphasized. "One of my friends described it, 'Well, you're Marge again!' because that's the way I always use to be. For two years there, I was not myself … so, now I'm back."
So, if you're another Marge and want to fill a void in your life, come in or contact the senior center at 922-4911 or e-mail at email@example.com.
Kathleen Bellaw Gest is a local freelance writer. For more about the Traverse City Senior Center, go to www.tcseniorcenter.com.