Elderly spouses take on burden of care-giving

November 19, 1990|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Marge Pilat and Walter Lewandowski's union 49 years ago in a tiny Catholic church in Baltimore's Patterson Park was for better or worse, in sickness and health, for as long as they both should live.

Now, three months after his funeral, the 71-year-old widow fumbles through yellowed photographs showing their life together: the years she lived for Walter's needs and, later, his determination to live for Marge as they struggled with his debilitating illness.

"I wish I could have him back, but he suffered so," said Mrs. Lewandowski, wiping a teardrop against her cheek. "I really shouldn't want to bring him back because he would just suffer again."

Mr. Lewandowski died Aug. 4 of pneumonia at 71.

For 11 years before his passing, his wife cared for him at their home in Dundalk, after a stroke and leg amputation confined him to a wheelchair.

The story of how Mrs. Lewandowski cared for her husband will be aired in a 28-minute video scheduled for 10:30 p.m. Nov. 30 on Maryland Public Television and for national broadcast in February.

Sure to become a celebrity among her circle of friends, Mrs. Lewandowski shrugs and wishes aloud that Walter were here to share in the popularity.

"He was such a ham. . . . Doggone it, Walter, you left me," she said more to herself than to a visitor at her side.

Sitting in the living room of her modest waterside home, Mrs. Lewandowski reminisced about how her husband yearned to be home with her during his final stay in the hospital.

"He was so frail," she said. "He wanted to come home, but I refused to bring him home until his strength had built up.

"I remember him saying, 'Margie, you've done so much for me through the years, you can do this, too.' But I was not 20 years old any more," she said.

Mrs. Lewandowski is among a growing number of elderly people -- mostly women -- nationwide who care for spouses or relatives at home.

Many aging Americans are chronically ill, but fewer than 5 percent live in nursing homes, said Susie R. Bosstick, chief of planning and evaluation at the Maryland Office on Aging.

"A lot of people think the family unit is falling apart, that families don't pay attention to their elderly, but that's not true," Ms. Bosstick said.

"The bulk of care for the elderly, approximately 80 percent, is traditionally provided by women. Although providing the care is tougher because it's difficult to obtain financial resources for a long period," she said.

Like the Lewandowskis, who have a daughter and two sons, many elderly couples have raised families through hard times and must confront their own frailties in an effort to keep sick loved ones at home.

Resources and financial aid are available, but many senior citizens shoulder the burden because of a reluctance to ask for help.

Mrs. Lewandowski got help from At Ease, a Baltimore County senior citizens group. She learned about financial programs and other resources to help her care for her husband.

She even took psychology courses to help her cope with her emotional trauma as she steered Walter through his problems, caring for his personal needs even while he was hospitalized.

In return, he maneuvered his wheelchair to do what he could around the house while she worked as a crossing guard.

"This is a love story," said Susan Hadary Cohen, who, with co-producer Bill Whiteford, filmed Mrs. Lewandowski this summer as she struggled to sustain her husband with hope and caring.

"Even though the videotape shows hard moments for them together, when he's snapping at her and she's backing off of him, you know it's love that's underlying everything when they look into each others eyes," Ms. Cohen said.

Mrs. Lewandowski remembers when their eyes first met, over a hunk of beef at the meat counter of a Patterson Park grocery store.

Then a cannery worker, the shy, pretty redhead met the butcher two days later at a neighborhood dance. They soon began a three-year courtship, highlighted by a marriage proposal during a moonlight cruise.

"My God, he was a handsome man. He was such a romantic," Mrs. Lewandowski said, her round face creasing in lines of laughter as she reminisced about the kisses they stole in Patterson Park and trips to the Arundel Ice Cream parlor nearby for double-dipped cones.

The Lewandowskis remained together through good times and bad. The moments they shared were filled with simple pleasures: the polka, Al Jolson, milkshakes, old musicals, traveling, holidays, grandchildren, family and friends.

"I do have a lot of good memories," Mrs. Lewandowski said. "They should tide me over for a longtime."

However, she admits there are moments when her image of Walter begins to fade.

"It's only been a few months but sometimes I can't visualize Walter in my mind," she said squeezing her eyes closed.

"My whole world was so different when they took my Walter from me. Sometimes I wish he would come down and give me a hug. . . . I could use that hug, now."

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