The life of a Dundalk, Md., couple is chronicled in a stirring television special that raises several issues of importance to elderly patients and family care-givers.
"Marge and Walter," a 28-minute documentary filmed in a home on Peach Orchard Road, previews at 10:30 p.m. tomorrow on Maryland Public Television and will be broadcast nationally in February on PBS. In the special, Marge Lewandowski, 72, a retired school crossing guard, shares the feelings and frustrations of caring for her husband, Walter, 72, a victim of multiple chronic and acute illnesses.
Tightly woven together in "Marge and Walter" are the issues of self-identity, care-giving, aging and loving. But one major element is missing. Walter died shortly after the documentary was completed this summer, leaving viewers wondering: How has Marge's life changed? Is she moving forward?
"I've been so depressed and cry a lot since Walter died. I've been angry because I'm without him," Marge said in an interview from her home last week.
But she is coping. She attends a support group for surviving spouses, continues with her exercise classes and studies at a community college. "So what if I'm old? I got my GED when I was 56, and I'm still learning a lot about myself," she said.
Marge, whose relationship with Walter spanned half a century as husband and wife, worked as a crossing guard for 26 years, doing weekend and evening work for extra money. The couple raised three children, and for 10 years Marge cared for Walter, who encountered a broad range of medical problems: a major heart attack that caused the loss of a leg, causing him to use a wheelchair; several strokes; pneumonia; depression.
Calling care-giving "a never-ending funeral," Marge said she, like many older care-givers, was drawn into the role with little thought or planning. And like most, she was unwilling to bother her children or friends for assistance and remained isolated in her role as a care-giver.
Halfway through the documentary, Marge begins to weep as she explains trying to take care of Walter alone: "I tried to do everything by myself, but I don't know what to do anymore. He doesn't eat, take his medicine. He doesn't want to live anymore. He thinks I can do everything. But I have a breaking point."
Contrary to popular belief, only 5 percent of the elderly are cared for in nursing homes. Most of those with health problems are dependent on at-home care, and experts say increasing numbers of families are faced with assuming care-giving roles.
Debra Wertheimer, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said family care-givers should not isolate themselves, because there are programs that can assist them with such things as respite care and finances.
The patient's primary physician should be able to assist the care-giver in finding support and referrals, said Wertheimer, who is also medical director of the Waxter Senior Center in Baltimore.
One important resource is care-giver support groups, which provide practical assistance and emotional outlets. Another is day-care centers for the elderly, which provide opportunities for a patient to be in a different and safe environment while interacting with other people.
Those programs, Wertheimer said, give family care-givers a break to pursue their own professional, recreational and routine activities.
Marge, who describes herself as a "romantic optimist," said a women's psychology course helped her realize that she has a right to express her feelings and taught her to walk out of the room to avoid arguments when Walter was ill and hostile. She also learned to acknowledge that she is entitled to thanks for her efforts. But awareness of her personal needs, she said, didn't erode her caring and determination "to always be there for Walter."
And she was always there for her "grouchy macho man."
"Taking care of Walter was a 24-hour job with little time to myself," Marge recalled recently.
"I'd go to bed, get up and do it all over again," she said with a gentle laugh.
"Marge and Walter," produced by William Whiteford and Susan Hadary Cohen, both of Baltimore, originally was released in Los Angeles in September as a film, qualifying it for consideration in this year's Academy Awards competition.
"Caring for Walter has been rewarding and frustrating," Marge said. "But it's sad how people forget that old people have the same needs as everyone else."