Many newly married couples recite the vows "in sickness and in health," but they don't always anticipate what really lies ahead. Being a full-time caregiver to an aging or sick spouse can be a demanding, stressful and emotionally charged endeavor. It is hard to see a loved one decline in health, particularly when it affects their memory and overall sense of self. Most spouses want to take care of their beloved partners in their home environment, but they shouldn’t lose sight of caring for themselves. Caregivers must maintain their own health so they will best be able to help a spouse. Knowing how and when to ask for help is important.
Local couple Vernon and Eleanor Huber, married for nearly 70 years and Lewes residents for the past 40 years, are a good example. Eleanor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a year ago. She also faces challenges with Parkinson's disease and Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder which causes dizziness, vertigo, fluctuating and later permanent hearing loss, and other symptoms.
Vernon, 90 years old, prides himself on being very independent. However, after consultation with their priest and grown son, Steven, last December, he realized he needed to explore local resources to help him care for Eleanor. That’s where Beebe Healthcare's Gull House came in.
Vernon set up an intro appointment with Gull House Director Kathleen Graham Frey, MA, CTRS, NHA/L, CDPI, to learn more and see if it would be a good match. Soon after, Eleanor began attending Gull House a couple days a week. After early success, she now attends three days a week for three to five hours a session. These time periods allow Vernon to take care of doctor appointments and catch up on household chores, knowing Eleanor is being cared for and engaging in regular scheduled activities with trained staff.
"The staff and I strive to create an environment in which the person who has dementia is seen as a unique individual with a vibrant personality, a lifetime of preferences, and experiences worthy of respect and engagement," said Frey.
Vernon said, "In addition to maintaining our own home and looking after Eleanor, I also help oversee a couple neighbors' seasonal homes when they are away, mowing the lawn and more. While I enjoy doing it, and it gets me outside in the fresh air, in my older years, handling it all can be tiring. When at home, I'm constantly concerned when I'm out of the room of Eleanor potentially falling. Now with Gull House, I have the peace of mind that Eleanor is in a safe, caring environment, and it gives me time to get some others things done on my to-do list. The people at Gull House are great! One staff member in particular that Eleanor has gotten to know is Terry. Terry is always so helpful and personable."
"Basically, I feel like I am the adopted fourth son, between Vernon's home-grown tomatoes and Eleanor's schoolteacher stories; I feel privileged to know and assist them," said Terry McKnight, activities assistant at Beebe's Gull House.
A love story for the ages
Reminiscent of the love story in "The Notebook," the couple's love and rich history is apparent. Vernon shared how they first met in the summer of 1942 when he was 14 and Eleanor was 12. Eleanor's father was transferred to work in northern Delaware with war construction, in the same town where Vernon and his family lived.
Vernon recalls, "When I first met Eleanor at school, I inquired to our mutual friend Gertrude, 'Who is the pretty blond girl, new in town?'"
Later, Eleanor and her family had to suddenly pick up and move due to her father's job. Vernon was upset that he did not get to say goodbye to Eleanor, but asked their mutual friend if it would be OK if he wrote to her. They started corresponding, and Vernon received letters from various locations such as Durham, N.C., Louisiana, and Arizona. Eleanor completed her last two years of high school in Tempe, Ariz., even skipping a grade due to her advanced skills. Upon graduation, she began college at Arizona State University. The long-distance correspondence between Vernon and Eleanor continued, and one day Vernon got up the nerve to ask her to marry him, and as he said, "She surprisingly said yes." Vernon got out of the naval service, took a train to Arizona to join Eleanor, then 18 years old, and the two were married that June and returned to northern Delaware to start a new life together.
While raising a family of three boys – Christopher, Steven and Danny – Eleanor graduated with distinction from the University of Delaware and was named outstanding student in the School of Education.
Recently, Vernon said, "Despite certain challenges, all in all, we've had a very blessed life. Our family means so much to us. After our children were grown, while in retirement and still in good health, Eleanor and I traveled extensively together via cruises to places as far-reaching as the Arctic Circle, Antarctica, South America, and the South Pacific."
The couple continues to stay active and do things together. They share a love for cinema, frequently attending matinees at Midway, as well as spending time with their extensive family and friends.
For a primary caregiver, it’s a real comfort to have a safe place with caring, trained staff where one can rest assured their loved one is in a healthy environment.
Gull House is a structured and supervised adult day-care program designed for functionally impaired seniors age 60 or older. The primary goals are to avoid or forestall long-term care treatment; to support and improve social, mental, emotional and physical levels of functioning; to enhance quality of life; and to provide respite to families and caregivers. The program is supported by Beebe Healthcare, a grant from the Delaware Division of Services for Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities, the Delaware Medicaid Program, and monthly contributions from each participant.
The Gull House business office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Adult Day Recreation Program begins at 9 a.m. and discharge to home is 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. A hot lunch and snacks are served daily.
Activities include walks, outings, exercise, arts and crafts, games, cooking, reminiscence therapy, reading and storytelling, discussion groups, music and singing, and special celebration events.
A full-time RN/LPN is available to give medications, monitor vital signs and perform basic nursing procedures. All staff members are dementia practitioners certified by the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners. A Caregivers Support Group meets once a month for discussion, encouragement, and sharing of ideas and resources. Transportation to and from Gull House is available at a nominal charge. Programs are customized to meet each client's particular needs.
For more information, call Gull House at 302-226-2160, or go to www.beebehealthcare.org/gull-house.