NAPLES — Martha Eaton’s husband John had the best memory of anyone she had ever known.
He was a history buff, a U.S. Navy veteran and, for most of their 62-year marriage, he always remembered directions when they were traveling in the car.
But Alzheimer’s disease has a way of changing things.
For the last 10 years of John’s life, Eaton, 86, cared for him at their home in Waterford as his disease progressed until his death last July at the age of 90.
As a family caregiver, Eaton and others in her situation play an important role in keeping loved ones safe and comfortable as they age. But when her husband was first diagnosed, Eaton wasn’t quite sure how to move forward.
She found help from a free family caregiver program offered in Bridgton, and that program will soon come to Naples and Scarborough, with the goal of helping others who find themselves in similar situation.
“Early in the disease, I didn’t understand a whole lot,” Eaton said in an interview at her home. “I didn’t want to know what was coming.”
What she soon realized, however, was that she couldn’t do it alone. Thankfully, she had plenty of support from family, friends and neighbors. She has six children, one of whom lives down the road, and another who moved back to Waterford from California to stay with them towards the end of John’s life.
She also got help starting in 2009 from a free informational course, the Savvy Caregivers Program, offered by the Southern Maine Agency on Aging. The program features training, activities and discussion aimed at helping family caregivers better understand how to deal with the challenges of dementia, a general term for a decline in mental ability that includes several diseases.
“I went with a friend to a support group in Bridgton,” she said. “It was there that they told us about the Savvy Caregivers course. When I took it, John had been diagnosed for about three years.”
“There were probably 10 of us, and we were a pretty close-knit group who really supported each other,” she continued. “We all learned from each other. … It helped us to understand what was going on, it helped me to get others’ perspective. We exchanged what we were going through and how we handled things. I would refer back to it as a situation would arise.”
In 2014, she even took the course a second time to continue learning new information and keep looking ahead. She says the second course, which she took in Paris, was even better because it gave her a chance to help others by sharing her own experience and knowledge.
“A silly little thing, like my husband would get up at night and walk around. So what do you do? I hid his shoes,” Eaton said. “He wouldn’t get up if he didn’t have his shoes on. You don’t read that in a book, but that’s what you get from these group sessions. You feed off each other.”
According to Ann O’Sullivan, the Family Caregiver Support manager at SMAA, the Savvy Caregiver Program has been held more than 50 times in different towns. O’Sullivan said hundreds of people have taken advantage of the evidence-based program, and others will have a chance to later this month.
The 12-hour training course will be offered in Scarborough at SMAA’s Route 1 office starting April 26, and again July 12. SMAA encourages anyone interested to call 800-427-7411, ext. 541, or ask to speak about family caregivers.
O’Sullivan emphasized that while the Savvy Caregiver program seeks to help people adjust to challenges created by dementia, it also aims to identify “retained abilities” that can help keep people with dementia stay engaged and focused.
For Eaton’s husband, those activities included playing cribbage, listening to music and doing puzzles.
“All that is good to keep their mind going,” Eaton said. “He was happy, he was funny.”
She encourages others to be proactive about dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and recommends the Savvy Caregiver Program as a way to learn more.
“I think the big thing is that people in the beginning are afraid to admit it,” Martha said. “You need to admit it and deal with it right away.”
Martha Eaton, 86, of Naples, with a picture of her late husband John, who died last July after living with Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years.