Diana Kendall was found to have Huntington’s in 2000, and her husband, Dave, became her caregiver. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

In June 2010, a social worker told Dave Kendall to take a break. In the prior 18 months, his mother had died unexpectedly. A few months after the funeral, his father died. Immigration officials then deported the caregiver who was helping Dave feed, bathe and care for his wife, Diana. In the middle of that, the ceiling collapsed in his Annandale living room.

None of that had kept him from keeping his vow: caring for his wife of almost 40 years in sickness and health. In 2000, at age 48, Diana learned she had Huntington’s, a fatal neurodegenerative condition with progressive psychiatric, cognitive and physical effects that Dave described as “the worst disease on Earth” in a 2008 Washington Post Magazine piece.

Before the social worker, plenty of friends and relatives had urged him to take a day off. He had resisted, convinced that no one else could give Diana his level of attention. But Dave was drained, and Diana was in fast decline.

Putting Diana in a nursing home for respite care, the social worker said, would give Dave what he most lacked: time. That week provided the answer to a question he’d been struggling with since her diagnosis: “When will I know it’s okay to put Diana in a nursing home?”

He knew when he watched his once-feisty wife sit silently as the ambulance crew wheeled her out of her home of 30 years and drove off. “She never asked about me. When I asked her about her week [later], she said it was wonderful.”

At that point, Dave, 61, realized that he wasn’t her companion; he was a caregiver and, perhaps, no longer the best one.

On July 22, Diana moved into a private nursing home four miles away from the Kendalls’. At first, Dave was overcome with a sense of freedom. He went on long hikes and joined a singing group. He slept in. He stopped cooking. That phase soon gave way to “now what? ” at which point Dave began applying his well-honed planning skills to his own life. He’s readying the house for sale and looking into active adult communities. He has breakfast with other caregiver spouses.

He’s moving but not yet moving on. “I have to live my life. I cannot get stuck, but I have to do this with the utmost respect for Diana.” He visits her five times a week.

On Valentine’s Day, Dave sat for an hour, trying unsuccessfully to get her to say her name or his. As he was preparing to leave, Diana said, “I love you,” her first full sentence in at least two months. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he says with a grin. “She always likes to get in the last word.”

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