A hug and a kiss- that's all John Tate of Hollidaysburg can share with Shirley, his wife of 54 years.
Since Shirley, 76, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease eight years ago, Tate, also 76, became her caregiver. Preparing meals, cleaning and doing laundry is all in a day's work for the retired art teacher.
But, it's not the housework that's hard.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) John Tate of Hollidaysburg is a caregiver for his wife, Shirley. Although caregivers are predominantly female, a 2004 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving indicated that about 39 percent of caregivers in the United States are male.
"The toughest is to realize that your life mate's losing her mind and her memory," Tate said.
Sometimes Shirley Tate can have normal conversations or even sing along to church hymns, but every day is a little worse than the day before. She knows John, but she no longer recognizes their two children.
"I'm losing her one day at a time. When I'm by myself, I just break down," Tate said.
John Hildebrand of Mapleton Depot is leading a similar life with his wife, Eleanor.
When they were raising their eight children, Hildebrand worked as a supervisor at Tyson Foods in New Holland, and Eleanor stayed home as a housewife.
It wasn't until about six or seven years ago that Hildebrand began to grasp all the duties and responsibilities his wife took on over the years. With her suffering from Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and a bevy of other ailments, Hildebrand found himself caring for his wife and their house.
Because of her condition, the Hildebrands (now both 82) moved into an apartment above their son's home in Mapleton Depot.
Hildebrand has tremendous help from his son and daughter-in-law, but he can't help feeling overwhelmed at times caring for his wife of 61 years.
"I do everything. You name it. I test her sugar four times a day. I give her insulin four times a day.
"I clean the house. I make the beds," Hildebrand said.
Though caregivers are more likely to be female, Tate and Hildebrand are not alone.
According to a study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving in 2004 (the most recent year statistics were available), 39 percent of caregivers in the United States were male.
The Geriatric Interest Network of Blair County recognizes the difficulties unpaid male and female caregivers face and is holding a conference from 8:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. May 6 at Health South on Pleasant Valley Boulevard in Altoona.
Because most men in their senior years who become caregivers are experiencing a role reversal of sorts, there can be frustration, depression and a sense of hopelessness, especially if their loved ones may never get better.
"They can start experiencing emotional stress as their quality of life changes," Janice Groskin, vice president at Blair Senior Services in Altoona, said. "Emotionally it can take a toll for sure."
Elderly men who become caregivers may also suffer from their own health problems, or some senior men may still be employed when they become caregivers, causing them to struggle to work and care for their loved ones, she said.
Some male caretakers have trouble adjusting to their new role, which requires them to be nurturing, patient and calm, qualities that might not come automatically to men in their senior years, according to Groskin and Catherine Spayd, a clinical psychologist.
"I am stereotyping, but in this age group women are more likely to have been caretakers in their lives.
"For some men, it's kind of counterintuitive, but it doesn't mean they can't do it well. Some men might need to adjust to this concept," said Spayd, who also is on the Geriatric Interest Network board.
John Huey, 85, of New Florence began taking care of his wife Thelma, 80, after her heart attack last fall.
Thelma, who also has diabetes, helps with household chores, but she needs help from her husband.
"I give her her shot every morning and evening. I check her blood. I see to her diet. I see that she gets all her medication, and I see her to her doctor's appointments. I help in the house," Huey said.
Hildebrand agrees that it's hard to take on the caregiver role. It's also difficult because his wife, Eleanor, has Alzheimer's disease and may not always be cooperative.
"It's easier taking care of kids than an Alzheimer's patient. They have short tempers. They get angry," Hildebrand said.
Men need to ask for help and seek a support system, as well as find time for themselves.
"It's important people know they're not alone," Spayd said.
Tate said he has a good support system of friends and he sings with the Altoona Horseshoe Chorus. He takes his wife, Shirley, along and sometimes she'll sing if she remembers a song. It helps to belong to a group or have hobbies, Tate said.
"I keep myself occupied," he said.
"It's an incredibly important and under-recognized role. Typically people are in it for the long haul. You can't be a flash in the pan and burn out. Caregivers need to realize it's a long process," Spayd said.
Being a primary caregiver isn't easy, but Tate wouldn't have it any other way. Friends and family have suggested placing his wife in a nursing home, but he won't have it.
"As far as doing the chores, I don't mind all that. People have wanted me to put her in a care home, but I'm not ready. I enjoy having her here. I like giving her a hug and a kiss and telling her I love her and seeing her response to that," Tate said.
Anyone wishing to attend the caregivers' conference should call Altoona Regional Health System at 889-3123. People must register by April 29.