Adventures in Caregiving: It takes a community

When, without warning, the derecho knocked out most of the electrical power in Rappahannock and our neighboring counties, no one was more vulnerable than the many older couples where one spouse is caring for another with Alzheimer’s disease. Imagine first how challenging being such a family caregiver must be in any weather; now imagine one senior adult entirely responsible for the care of another when the power goes out and the heat is at record levels.

That’s why I was so relieved to check in with members of the Rappahannock County family caregiver support group recently and see their lives returning to normal. I was especially concerned about my friend Edmund Kavanagh, who lives alone with his wife, Bridey, and who has cared for her, on his own, with unflagging good cheer, across many years as her dementia has progressed.

Unlike the active, dynamic Irish woman she was for most of her life, Bridey no longer speaks, no longer feeds herself, and no longer manages any of her own personal care. Edmund, 78, walks her through every part of her day and she passively, smilingly cooperates.

The story Edmund told me when we met last week demanded to be shared, I thought, so I convinced Edmund to do so. Here he is, in his own words:

“Before I ever came to this country I’d always heard about the generosity of the American people, and the assistance I received during this horrendous period, proved that every word of it is true.

 “The early conflict I found myself in on the night of Friday, June 29, after the storm hit, left me rather bewildered because my wife’s Alzheimer’s had to be focused on. Her needs and comforts require a lot of attention, as I am her only 24/7 caregiver. Like everyone else, we were without electricity and all that depends on it. Fortunately, our generator kept our refrigerator running and a single fan did its best to keep us cool, but without the immediate response from some good people, my situation would have been horrendous.

 “There were practically around-the-clock calls from my immediate friends, who were determined to see that my wife and I were in good condition. More people than I can mention helped out with their good wishes. Three families in particular went to exhaustive lengths to assure the safety and survival of myself and my wife, Bridey.

 “John and Heidi Lesinski saw to our needs, had us to dinner, and made sure my generator was working, even leaving me a large container of gasoline. I was also offered the use of a second home on their property (which I declined). Their continuous phone calls and personal calls to the house reassured us that everything was going to be okay.

“Mike and Juliet DelGrosso practically stood on their heads for us, even taking our soiled dishes to the fire department (I think) to wash and then returning them sparkling clean. Their continuous running back and forward from the river with water for our hygienic needs and seeing to our welfare was commendable.

“Fred and Kathy Eggers invited us to dinner and fed us until we burst. After spending the evening by their swimming pool, I was loaded up with enough food for three days. David and Evelyn Kerr monitored us long distance, as they were away on a mini-vacation and were concerned for our safety. Good friend Sharron Proper came late at night to offer assistance also.”

After several days, the Kavanagh’s power came back on. The storm was over. Edmund’s caregiving continues, of course. He takes it day by day, as so many family caregivers do. His devotion to Bridey day in and day out, hour after hour, is inspirational, though he downplays it. “She’d do the same for me,” he shrugs and insists, again, that they are doing fine. Despite what he’s taken on, it’s hard to argue with that.

What the storm did was reinforce Edmund’s appreciation for his neighbors, a sentiment he had shared with me many times before. This grown boy from Dublin, a Rappahannock resident by way of London and Long Island, marvels at his neighbors in his adopted country.

Edmund says he thinks Americans’ generosity can be traced back to the country’s beginnings. “My own feeling is that this camaraderie was initially born in the era of the wagon trains heading west. Should one break down, the journey was stopped and all families came to the aid of the unfortunate one to repair or replace the damaged wheel, rather than leave that family to the peril of the Indians.”

He’s amazed at the way his neighbors circled their wagons and took care of him and Bridey after the power went out. “It looked to me as if these people were putting my situation ahead of their own, and God bless them – and God bless the United States,” he says with heartfelt passion. He smiles at Bridey and puts his hand on her leg and teases her for watching him so closely while he talks.

For myself, I’m just glad that in this case, at least, the caregiver and the woman he helps so lovingly were cared for with such similar devotion by neighbors caught up in their own crisis and inconvenience. Whether it’s our response to a debilitating long-term disease or to a short, violent storm, we’re at our best when we’ve got each other’s backs.