“Carol, you’re such a saint. You really are.”
Carol Overstreet smiled and nodded, accepting the compliment as graciously as it had been given. But as soon as her friend was out of hearing range, Carol turned to her husband and said wearily, “They always say that, but I don’t feel like a saint.”
Maybe she doesn’t feel like a saint, but to one bedridden man she is.
John Overstreet was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001. His wife, Frances, had died on April 1, 1999, leaving their third son, Dan, to tend his father. Dan, however, had a full time job, leaving John home alone most of the day. That’s when Carol stepped in.
Carol is the wife of Tim, John and Frances’s second son. She is most easily recognized by her large, happy smile framed by graying brown hair. Choosing the family over the work place, she was a stay-at-home mom, raising and homeschooling her four children through high school.
“After Frances died, I was the one taking care of John,” Carol said. “It got to the point where it would be easier on me if he just came here so I wouldn’t have to be spending so much time away from home. And he said he wanted to move in with us.”
At first, John’s other children wanted to put him in a nursing home rather than letting him move in with Carol’s family, but she insisted on taking him in.
“A nursing home is for people that don’t have any other choice,” she said. “I knew I could take better care of him than a nursing home could—better staff-to-patient ratio. And we cared.”
After three family meetings, it was agreed that John would move in with Tim’s family and be cared for by Carol. He would also pay for the addition that doubled the size of their house so he could have a handicap accessible suite.
John was supposed to move in after the addition was finished, but their plans were suddenly changed. He was admitted to North Arundel hospital on September 1, 2006, with a bleeding ulcer and a perforated stomach lining. He was released into Carol’s care October 7, 2006, before the addition could be finished. Carol’s family had to make adjustments. Since her two eldest children were attending a college out-of-state, the household had just enough room to squeeze John into his own room. She put her two youngest children—both high schoolers—in an attic room that was used as a single bedroom, and set up the bedroom across the hall from the master bedroom for John.
John was weak from surgery, too weak to even lift his head from his pillow. He had lost 60 pounds that month in the hospital. Because of the surgery, food wasn’t allowed in his stomach. The doctors gave him a feeding tube that channeled his food directly to his intestines so he could still eat. However, when the doctors finally took the tube out, he threw up whatever he ate. John hated throwing up and stopped eating.
“He asked me on several occasions to kill him,” Carol said quietly.
Carol ignored his feeble pleas and struggled to bring him back to health. Under her care, John was soon able to eat again, and she tried to cook all his favorite foods. Even though he had lost a lot of weight, John still weighed over 170 pounds and was unable to move himself. A physical therapist came to the house to teach Carol how to use a transfer board to move John from his bed to his wheelchair to his potty chair.
Carol quickly developed a routine of caring for her father-in-law. Every morning she would get up and get John to the shower. There she’d undress him and wash him herself.
“He didn’t believe in showers,” she said, remembering how it was before his surgery. “John stank all the time. If he actually got in the shower, all he would do is get wet. I remember helping him in the shower, him getting wet, then wanting to get out. He thought he was done. And I was like, ‘No, I haven’t washed you yet.’”
Once he was cleaned, Carol would dress him, making him help as much as he was physically able. Then she would move him back into his chair and wheel him out into the family’s living room. There he would sit in his arm chair and alternately watch channel 13 news and read his Maryland Gazette, only moving out of his chair for meals in the kitchen. When nighttime rolled around, Carol would take him back to his room, dress him in his night clothes, and tuck him in bed, setting his TV to turn off after 10.
“We were putting him in bed around 10 o’clock,” Carol said, “then we moved it up because Tim wanted me in bed by 10. So I’d put him in bed around 9 and let him watch TV in his room.”
The addition was finished in March 2007. Carol set up John’s room as she thought he would like it. Since John was a veteran of WWII, she gave the room an Americana theme, with soft blue walls, a dark blue gingham wallpaper halfway up the wall trimmed with a band of patriotic stars and hearts. They installed a ceiling fan and blue carpet. Carol also handmade John two sets of curtains that would match the trim of his wallpaper. She collected his six war medals, arranged them in a shadow box with a picture of him in his Navy uniform, and hung them on the wall. Then she gathered pictures of John’s children and grandchildren and hung them on the wall where he could see them from his bed. Dan also gave Carol two large collages their sister-in-law made of John and Frances growing old together.
“I thought that would make him happy,” Carol said wearily. “I don’t remember getting any approval or disapproval of the décor of his room.”
Once John had recovered from his hospital trip, things became easier for Carol. He was able to move himself, using his walker to help him get around the house. He would eat his food, ask for more, and then ask for the chocolate chip cookies Carol was famous for making. He would even join Carol on her daily bike rides, pedaling no faster than 3 miles per hour downhill, but enjoying being out on the bike trail. Every week, he would treat Carol’s family out to dinner at a restaurant of their choice, though he favored Bob Evans and Friendly’s. Even with his blessed mobility, Carol was limited in what she could do and where she could go.
“I didn’t have freedom anymore,” Carol said with a sigh. “I couldn’t go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go unless I took him with me. Grocery shopping, errand running, taking my kids to band, church—I remember taking Granddad to church and he wouldn’t be quiet.”
It is now 2012, six long years since Carol became John’s official caretaker, and things today are very different.
“When he first came to live with us, he had the mentality of about a 12 year old or so, and I’ve seen it go down, down, down,” Carol reflected. “Right now, he’s a 1 ½ year old in what he can comprehend. He liked having his wallet on him, going for drives—whatever—telling me where to go. Now he doesn’t even know he has a wallet, sometimes doesn’t want to leave his bed, and he no longer knows what day of the week it is.”
Today, John has a catheter and is in his bed more often than not. Since he won’t move himself, Carol has to use a Hoyer Lift, a large Y-shaped lift that has a hammock-like seat, to get John in and out of bed. They still go out once a week for dinner, but it is getting to be too much of a hassle to get John in and out of the car. His food has to be puréed, and he can’t feed himself. His wrinkled hands shake so badly he can’t keep food on his utensils, so Carol sits across from him and feeds him. Despite Carol’s best efforts, his appetite is slowly dwindling.
“My biggest problem is getting him to understand what we need to do,” Carol said. “He doesn’t always understand what I’m trying to do, and therefore fights against me. He doesn’t use his strength to help, only to fight.”
Carol stopped giving John his Alzheimer’s medications. The doctors agreed that it is probably better that he didn’t have them, since they were no longer helping him. Carol is currently just trying to keep John comfortable until he passes.
“There have been times when I get extremely frustrated at him,” she said, “And when I get mad at him, I get mad at me, because I know he can’t help it. But when you’re in the moment, you forget that. For years he would tell me I was his best babysitter – though he doesn’t say that anymore – even on days where I had been ‘bad’ and then I’d feel bad. I try to have more patience with him.”
Despite these difficulties, Carol has cared for him, through her own health problems with bone spurs, torn rotary cuffs, and golfer’s elbows without any apparent gratitude from him. Her husband and children were always ready to help, but they couldn’t always be around. There were days when Carol cared for her father-in-law with one arm in a sling. And she cares for him still.
“The main reason I care for John is because Frances always took good care of us,” Carol said. “I do it as a favor for her. She’s no longer here to take care of him, so I feel like I owe it to her to take care of him.”