Eugene Zanger—a retired psychologist who lives in Massapequa, NY has been the primary caregiver for his wife, Lois, since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996. This is his story, as told to Care Crossroads.
Every day for months, it was the same story. Lois Zanger would put in a full day at work, head to the parking lot to make the drive home and then forget where she parked her car. The fact that the lot was small and she’d been parking there for years didn’t cause her alarm. “How silly of me,” she’d say, shrugging it off. Even her training as a medical social worker specializing in clients with Alzheimer’s disease didn’t help her recognize her own symptoms. Ultimately, it would be her colleagues who suggested she needed to stop working.
That was 1996, the year Eugene Zanger began his journey as a caregiver for the second time. The first time, he was a young newlywed in his mid-20s who, tragically, saw his first wife through an aggressive case of terminal cancer. Widowed at 28, with an infant daughter to raise, Eugene had returned to Long Island, NY to be nearer to his family who pledged to help him with his child. But it was Lois who ultimately became the center of Eugene’s new life and his helpmate, as the two fell madly in love and were married in 1958.
“We never argued. We agreed on everything. We were like two peas in pod,” Eugene said, as he reflected on a marriage that he describes as “truly amazing.”
Early in Lois’ retirement, it was tempting to ignore the symptoms of dementia. Eugene slowed the pace of his career as a psychologist in private clinical practice, and the two traveled, played tennis and pursued other mutual interests.
“But there were many times when I simply cried,” Eugene acknowledged. “I even put my fist through the wall one day, I was so frustrated. You just never knew when the gaps in her memory would show up and make it impossible to carry on in a normal way.”
There was the time when she left her carry-on luggage in the airport lounge, insisting that she didn’t bring any of the things that she herself had personally packed only hours before. Or the many evenings she would pack her favorite photos into a suitcase and head out the door, telling Eugene that she was on her way “home” to her mother’s house in Syracuse—a destination that ceased to exist long ago but that now lived vividly inside Lois’ damaged memories.
So what did Eugene do?
“I took things one day at a time and, as it turned out, to this day, I’ve been able to care for Lois personally,” he said.
Although she is now in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, requiring constant care in all activities of daily living and no longer responsive to anything except Eugene’s gentle physical guidance of her petite frame as he helps her move through her day, Eugene remains her primary caregiver. Only recently, after her physical condition weakened to the point where her care was considered palliative, has Eugene accepted the assistance of a hospice nurse a few hours a day.
“My secret?” he said. “I just accepted my role as a caregiver.”
According to Eugene, such acceptance means that “you cannot be someone concerned with what everybody else is doing…Maybe it was my early experience caring for my first wife who died of cancer, or maybe it’s just my nature. But whatever role I am given in life—whether it’s husband, father, soldier, athlete—I just move toward it. I accept it, and I play the card I have been dealt.”
Before Lois’ sudden turn for the worse, in the days when she was physically still fit although verbally unresponsive, Eugene would simply devise a day’s agenda that somehow worked for both of them.
The library became a popular destination, for example. It started when Eugene noticed that live musical performance soothed Lois. So long as the program was short in duration, Lois would watch and listen attentively, and then feel well for the rest of the day. Eugene discovered that the public libraries located throughout Nassau County offered many such brief afternoon concerts for free. So he’d pack himself and Lois up in the car and off they would go. Lois was such an attentive concert-goer, Eugene was often able to steal a few moments for himself and sit and read the newspaper.
Afterward, he would take the gentle-spirited Lois along to do the grocery shopping. At his urging, she would hold on to cart and follow along as Eugene pulled lightly from other side.
“We looked funny, I am sure,” Eugene said, with a broad smile as he thought back. Then, with a more pained expression, he explained, “The Alzheimer’s disease was causing changes in Lois’ appearance and she aged noticeably. Sometimes people would ask me if I needed help with my mother.”
Through it all, Eugene has not failed to also care for himself. He looks a full decade or two younger than his 81 years. He keeps up with his biking and still plays the occasional tennis game. Plus, he remains close with one or two friends—people he credits with allowing him a chance not just to socialize, but also to express some of the sorrow he has experienced.
“I’ve been lucky,” he admitted. “I’ve had my health.”
Eugene also credits Lois for his success as her caregiver. Eugene describes her fundamental nature as “exceptionally compassionate.” She was a social worker by training and a humanitarian by nature. She sponsored Fresh Air Fund kids every summer for years and constantly opened her heart to people in need. Ironically, she had made a career out of caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease before she became sick herself. Except for a brief period of agitation that is now controlled by medication, Lois’ basic temperament has been consistently gentle.
“So, she’s easy to care for, really.” Eugene said calmly and soberly. Then, sharing his secret, he added, “Yes, well… I guess it comes down to love.”