Early in the morning, Mike and Doris Caplan wake up in the same blond bedroom set they purchased in 1954, in the same tiny Wedgwood house they’ve always had. They hug each other as they have almost every day for the 61 years they’ve been married.
Then Caplan gets up, makes coffee and begins breakfast. Sometimes he makes French toast, his wife’s favorite, or an omelet.
Cooking is a new task for him, one he had to take on two years ago when Doris showed the first signs of dementia. He quickly ended up taking on laundry, housecleaning and bill paying — all the things Doris had done — and caring for her personal needs as well. Slowly he became less her husband and more her caregiver. The woman he married was now a fragile person whose memory would come and go. They are both 84 now.
He grieved for the Doris he used to fox trot and waltz with, his dependable life partner and mother of their three children. She was a woman who kept the house, paid the bills and always had dinner ready when he came home from work as a draftsman for the Burlington Northern Railroad. And now, he felt both anger and sadness.
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John Deagan, a caregiver advocate with Senior Services, was assigned to the case. Deagan’s job is to help people such as Caplan get support so they can continue caring for their loved ones and avoid burnout. Deagan got Caplan counseling to train him in how to cope with his wife’s changes, got him help with transportation to medical appointments and help with housecleaning — all offered without cost to anyone caring for a senior. For Caplan, it made it possible to keep Doris at home instead of in a nursing home.
Each year the three caregiver advocates for Senior Services, one of 12 nonprofits assisted by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, serve 300 families.
“We are priceless,’’ said Sally Friedman, one of the advocates. “We are a free place, and we help people know they are not alone … You get so isolated when you’re a caregiver. You need to be able to talk about it.’’
“Sometimes,” said Deagan, “it’s giving people the permission to be selfish … and maybe take a yoga class.’’
Senior Services used to have four caregiver advocates, but budget cuts eliminated one position.
A significant portion of Senior Services’ funding comes through Aging and Disability Services, which funnels federal, state and local money to community agencies.
“The need for our services is growing, and funding — all funding (federal, state and local) — is declining and has been since the recession,” said Kate Turpin, Senior Services vice president and chief operating officer. The agency is now serving not just seniors but adults with disabilities, she said, with no additional funding.
Programs such as caregiver outreach and support are vital in keeping seniors living at home, Turpin said. The chief dividend is the cost savings to the individual in avoiding, or at least delaying, institutionalization.
Senior Services strengthens the economic status of seniors by allowing them to age in place in their homes, versus paying for costly hospitalizations or a nursing home, she said.
In a National Association of Area Agencies on Aging study released last month, the state’s senior-service providers reported 90 percent cuts to nutritional services, 60 percent cuts to information and referral services and 60 percent cuts to transportation services.
“These are critical programs,”
said Sandy Markwood, chief executive officer of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “When there are federal budget cuts, it really will jeopardize the ability of older adults to remain independent.
“It will cost the families and individuals and ultimately society three times as much as any of these services,’’ she said. “It is squeezing seniors out of their homes.’’
The Caplan family doesn’t need convincing.
“This person you’ve lived with forever is changing and not in a good way,’’ said Debbie Clement, the Caplans’ daughter. Her father needed help adjusting to the role of caregiver as his wife slowly went from a woman who played mahjong, went bowling, lunched with friends and took care of all household chores, to being unable to answer the phone or operate the washer or dryer.
The other day, Deagan checked in to see how the Caplans were doing.
“On my first visit, you weren’t as gentle with Doris as you could be,’’ Deagan told Mike. “The second time I visited, you had to start bathing Doris, and you had more and more put on your plate. So how are you holding up?’’
“’I’ve been trying to follow the advice to count to 10,’’ Caplan said. “I never knew how much she did around the house. Women deserve a medal.’’
Before his wife began to decline, Caplan golfed with friends, drew Disney characters and played the organ. When his wife’s dementia began, both their worlds started to close in.
“I felt trapped,’’ Caplan said. “I knew I needed help. It was overwhelming.’’
Clement said her father “had never had a house cleaner before, so it seemed like a real luxury’’ when Senior Services provided him with one.
He wasn’t sure he wanted one but now “He loves her,’’ Clement said.
Life still isn’t easy, Mike said. But it’s better, and he’s able to laugh at himself and with his wife.
“I’m the ogre. She’s the pleasant one,’’ he said.
“No!’’ she replied.
“Are you feeling you have the support you need?” Deagan asked. Caplan said he was.
“How is your stress level?” Deagan asked Bob Caplan, the Caplans’ son, who dropped by for a visit. Except for the recent theft of his Subaru, he was coping, he said.
Bob and Deagan talked about the possibility of Doris spending time at an adult day center, so Mike could have a chance to relax. The day-care center might cost the Caplans, depending on their income.
While many things in the Caplans’ decades together remain the same, these days the past is a shifting memory. Doris pointed to a photo of granddaughters on the living-room wall, but couldn’t say who they were. One thing she was certain of: She and her husband “met when he was in the Navy,’’ she said, ”at a dance at Garfield High School.’’
“We met someplace on Union Street,’’ he said.
“No, it was at a dance,’’ she replied.
At night, he helps her into a new nightgown, then tucks her into the double bed they purchased at the Bon Marché when they were young, had just bought the two-bedroom house and were dreaming of their future. He slips in beside her. On the bedroom wall are children’s wedding photos, paintings he’s done of cats with flowers. These things are now of uncertain meaning for his wife.
Then they hug each other good night, and for one brief moment she is the same woman he’s always loved. He turns out the light.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org