Owen Houghton remembers the day he decided he couldn’t care for his wife, Norma, at home anymore. It was right around Christmas 2015, the 81-year-old Jaffrey resident recalled.
He had lit a cinnamon candle on the kitchen table and left the room to read. It wasn’t long after that he heard a clanking sound in the kitchen. Norma had opened the silverware drawer.
“What are you doing?” he asked from the living room.
Moments later, he entered the kitchen to see his wife of 56 years spooning hot wax from the candle into her mouth.
Six years earlier, Norma had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that leads to a host of symptoms, including gradual memory loss, disorientation and personality changes. Houghton cared for her at home for as long as he could.
But Norma’s condition was getting worse.
“Not long after that, heating the oven for pizza, I just opened the door to check, and damn if there weren’t clothes in there,” Houghton, who writes a monthly column on aging for The Sentinel, said.
Norma enjoys the water, and Houghton arranged regular outings to the wellness-center pool at Monadnock Community Hospital. She loves singing, and Houghton made sure she continued to go to choir practices at the United Church of Christ in Jaffrey, which the couple have been involved with for decades.
But through it all, he grappled with a dilemma caregivers sometimes face: Is there a point beyond which a loved one with a progressive condition can no longer safely live at home?
For Houghton, the answer was “yes.” Norma, now 80, lives at Summerhill Assisted Living in Peterborough, where Houghton visits her often. Being a caregiver is complex, he said, with much planning involved, from thinking about advance directives to navigating doctor’s appointments.
Next month, several local organizations that work with families and seniors will hold a joint summit to help Monadnock Region residents who are caring for an aging loved one.
The event, slated for Nov. 3, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Keene Middle School, will feature eight speakers who will cover various aspects of caregiving, including legal issues, fitness and caring for people with memory loss.
There aren’t estimates for the number of people caring for aging loved ones in the Monadnock Region, but questions surrounding caregiving come up often, said Susan Ashworth, director of community relations at the Keene-based Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services.
An estimated 34.2 million people in the United States provided unpaid care to adults ages 50 or older in 2015, according to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.
Caregivers, Ashworth said, often come to HCS with inquiries ranging from the logistics of living with an aging family member needing care, to how to deal with the stress of being responsible for someone whose health is declining.
HCS, along with the Keene Senior Center, Monadnock ServiceLink, Cheshire Medical Center and other agencies organized the summit.
Houghton, who will attend the conference, said he understands firsthand the need for an event like this. Caregiving, he said, can be complicated, but is made better by reaching out. For his part, he solicited help from church members and area agencies to assist with Norma’s care.
The summit will tackle some of the bigger questions caregivers may face, such as how to advocate for a loved one and what to do when legal and financial questions arise, said Jennifer Begley, director of resiliency and well-being at Cheshire Medical Center, and one of the speakers.
Christine Shepard from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’ Family Caregiver Support Program will be the summit’s keynote speaker. She’ll discuss state and federal initiatives to support caregivers and share updates on the work of the Commission to Study Grandfamilies in the state — families where grandparents care for their grandchildren.
Organizers hope 100 people will attend the summit, and as of Tuesday, about half those spots had already been filled. The daylong event costs $15, but scholarships are available, according to Begley.
Houghton said he hopes caregivers learn as much as they can about the logistics of helping a loved one with a serious illness.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t deny what is happening,” he said. “Seek all the resources that do exist, be open about it with family and then plan for the continuum, that is the developmental process, from beginning to end. Don’t be afraid of legal stuff, advance directives, funeral arrangements — do it, do it, do it.”
As for the cinnamon candle that helped him make up his mind about the next phase in Norma’s care: Houghton saved it — spoon still stuck within — as a symbol of his journey with his wife.
Registration for the Monadnock Summit for Caregivers of Aging Loved Ones is available by calling 354-5460 or visiting https://bit.ly/2EGoR9G