Caregiving and Shipwrecks

By Joan Axelrod-Contrada

My husband, Fred, banged on the wooden gate blocking off the stairs.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“My nail clippers,” he said.

I rushed upstairs, then heard a noise that made me cringe. A chair dragged across the floor. No, not again.

I found Fred with one foot on a wooden chair and the other straddling the bannister. Doctors had diagnosed him with Lewy Body Dementia, a sort of cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. My formerly bright, vibrant, black-belt-in-karate, newspaper-reporting, fiction-writing, mountain-climbing husband had become a confused and frail shadow of his old self.

I sat Fred in his armchair in the kitchen and brought over his book of columns. As a columnist for the Springfield Union-News, then The Republican, he’d written about his outdoor adventures, experiences hitchhiking cross-country, and connections to friends, relatives, and people around town. Reading aloud, his voice was muted. I couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to run away. Jump ship. Get back my old life. Instead, I did the next best thing: Grabbed my cellphone and checked my e-mail.

Seeking Authors for Series: All-Time Worst Disasters

Had some editor in the sky heard that my life had become a disaster? I clicked and read about a new series of books for children with seven titles. My eyes swept past floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, landing squarely on shipwrecks.

I joined a caregivers’ support group and talked about all the times I felt thrown overboard. I joked about how our ship was always springing a leak. Strange compulsions and delusions took over Fred’s mind. He tapped on water bottles and shredded their labels. He heard violent jingles in his head. He confessed “impure thoughts” about other women.

Then, like a beacon in a storm, I remembered Paul Newman’s quote about being faithful to his wife. “Why go out for hamburger when I have steak at home?”

Filet mignon was more like it! The women who swirled in Fred’s brain were chopped liver. I had a snappy comeback I could use like a life vest to keep my head above water.

I made Fred my research assistant on the shipwrecks project. Most shipwrecks, I learned, had resulted from human error. Ships packed way beyond capacity sank when they hit rough waters. Caregivers, too, risked death from over-exertion.

Fortunately, Fred had accrued so much good karma in his 65 years that friends, relatives, and colleagues put themselves out to help. Our 26-year-old son, Rio, moved back home from LA. A former colleague, who’d left the paper to go to culinary school, brought over home-baked pies. Another former colleague started a blog. My Dream Team of friends and relatives rented us a house on the Cape.

I hired private aides, too. At first, they brought Fred on hikes and to karate. Then, as Fred’s balance worsened, hikes gave way to strolls and karate to Tai Chi. Everything got harder. Aides came and went. Hopefully by the time my book on shipwrecks comes out, I’ll have subsidized aides to keep us afloat.

""Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe and the author of 20 books for children. She is also the founder and editor of WriteAngles Journal. She can be reached at


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