What I Wish I'd Known About the Toll Caregiving Takes: Actor Hector Elizondo

The Emmy winner talks about Alzheimer's caregiving in the 1960s and now.

Hector Elizondo isn't a psychiatrist. He just plays one on TV -- in the popular series Monk. So when Elizondo's real-life mother, Carmen, developed Alzheimer's disease in the '60s, he didn't fully realize the psychological costs to his father, Martin Echevarria Elizondo, who was her primary caregiver. Nor did he understand how best to help his dad.

At the time, Alzheimer's wasn't well understood, and it was talked about even less. "It devastated my family, mainly because we didn't know what it was," says the actor, who won an Emmy in 1997 for his role in Chicago Hope. "And it helped kill my father, because he made the prime error of not taking care of himself. He didn't 'put the mask on himself first,' as they say on the airlines -- you know, in case of emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping others."

Though Elizondo and his sister tried to give their father breaks, "he went 24/7 and wore himself out with stress and anxiety and guilt," recalls Elizondo, who says that his father was always trying new foods or vitamins to "cure" his wife, and watching for signs that she was getting better. Eventually, Martin Elizondo had to be hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and he died three years later -- ironically, before his wife.

More than 30 years later, his son, now a spokesperson for the Alzheimer's Association, wants to let other caregivers -- and caregivers to caregivers -- know that today there are many resources out there to provide support. He also believes that family members can be educated about how best to help the primary caregiver, especially as the disease progresses and becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

"Know what it is, know the nature of it -- that it's degenerative -- and create as helpful an environment as you can for caregivers to take care of themselves," he says. "Give them that badly needed break and help them 'put the mask on' themselves first. If we had known what it was and what we had to do, I think we could have gotten my father through it."

Read the full interview with Hector Elizondo.

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