When Alice Kulak married Geoff, her high school sweetheart, 57 years ago, she knew life would be anything but boring.
Alice, 78, kept an active schedule volunteering with the Junior League of Edmonton, serving on the board of directors of the Art Gallery of Alberta, and sitting on the executive board of the Chamber Music Society. She worked part-time and anchored the home front for her husband and two daughters, but Geoff, now 79, led the parade!
Geoff was a prominent, well-regarded engineer with an international reputation for his specialty in steel structures.
“It was an adventure,” remembers Alice. “He was ambitious and bright, and we lived for periods of time in places as diverse as the US, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland, and Norway where Geoff lectured and did research.”
Geoff taught for 25 years in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Alberta, retiring in 1994. He sat on many technical committees in Canada and the US. In 1996, he cochaired with lawyer Ken McKenzie the Royal Commission that investigated the rollercoaster accident at West Edmonton Mall that resulted in three deaths.
Geoff wrote the engineering textbook Limit States Design in Structural Steel, which is still used at the undergraduate level in 95% of Canadian universities. To honor him, the Steel Fabricators of Alberta created a $30,000 annual scholarship fund in his name.
Dealing with “the diagnosis”
Over four years ago, Geoff was diagnosed as having entry-level dementia. The couple’s once fast-paced and busy lifestyle shifted to more of a shuffle. The change has affected both Alice and Geoff equally.
“There’s a lot of pain and grief as you see a life slipping away; seeing your loved one losing his presence. Geoff feels frustrated as well. He realizes he is losing ground, and it bewilders him.”
The Kulaks moved to Touchmark as the couple realized the two-story home they were living in had become more house and garden than they could handle. Alice, Geoff, and their two daughters felt it was the right time to make the move as Geoff’s dementia was becoming more defined.
“We definitely enjoy the maintenance-free lifestyle here at Touchmark. When we need someone to fix something, it happens very quickly.” Touchmark’s various levels of care services also appealed to the couple.
“Everything has changed in the last two-and-a-half years. I now feel the responsibility of being a caregiver rather than a companion. I take care of Geoff and the household, but I now also handle all of the things Geoff used to deal with like our investments and taxes. All of this, while trying to grieve the husband I am losing.”
Two times a week for four hours, Alice has help through Home Care Services as well as from Touchmark’s assisted living staff to give her some time for herself.
“My goal now is to keep my health and my spirits up for Geoff. I exercise using the treadmill, bike, medicine ball, and weights for 35-45 minutes a day. The staff are great with Geoff, so during my breaks I go play bridge. I love going for lunch with my friends and going to church or reading.”
The respite care has been a benefit to the couple’s relationship, as well. “I’ve realized that I need time for myself. And Geoff welcomes the caregivers coming in. We’re together all of the time, so I’ve realized that he, too, wants relief from me.”
Memory care opening
With a new memory care neighborhood opened at Touchmark this March, more care options became available for families like the Kulaks.
“Geoff is on the waiting list, has had an interview with the nurses, and has been assessed for what his care needs would be. I know the quality of life for both of us would go up by having him there, but I still feel conflicted. I worry if I’ve done everything I can for him on my own,”
This is a conflict faced by many in the same situation. While it’s not an easy choice to make, Alice is comforted knowing there is quality memory care support coming available just a few doors away from her.
“Realizing I can’t do everything I want to do with him on my own and knowing that he could have quality care, and I could still be close by and involved—that gives me some peace of mind.”
Tips for other caregivers
While Alice realizes she isn’t alone in dealing with the demands of being a full-time caregiver, she also realizes just how fortunate she is to have help. She has friends who have gone through the same situation who have helped her, and now Alice shares her own personal story as a resource for others.
“My tips for other caregivers are these: get yourself into circumstances you can handle; get involved in your community; and ask for help! It’s important not to isolate yourself. Our family mantra is, ‘Keep Dad comfortable and loved,’ and having the help of my family and the extra care for Geoff have made my life—and his—a little easier.”