It was a typical workday. While sipping my early morning coffee, I called my mom in Ottawa for our ritual weekly chat. Although she answered the phone with apprehension, I greeted her cheerfully and asked, “What was new.” I sensed something was amiss and after much prodding and reassuring her that I would not be angry, Mom reluctantly divulged that she had just given all her banking information to a stranger on the phone. “He had such a nice manner and was so friendly,” she said, “but I’m not sure if I should have told him my account numbers.”
It was the third or fourth time in a year that Mom’s behaviour had been completely out of character, and her confusion made her feel stupid and at fault. She had set the table for a Christmas birthday in October. She giggled loudly at my dad’s funeral and then wept, telling everyone she was his widow, even though they had divorced 20 years earlier. She purchased a life insurance policy that she couldn’t afford. She suddenly forgot birthdays and the names of anyone new. I urged her to see her doctor. He recommended that Mom take a memory test. Angry and confused, Mom walked out on the first test. It took almost a year before another test could be scheduled but, this time, my brother waited nearby while Mom was encouraged to stay the course. The test showed what we had suspected; Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Mom was angry, in denial, and often cried in confusion, unable to recall everyday details that shaped her life. Once the stalwart mother hen who always fussed and fretted over her six children, she was the life of the party and loved to entertain. She had many dear old friends and used to love to make new ones. The mother of the past knew everyone’s birthday.
As the eldest daughter, I was used to taking charge and I laid out a plan for Mom’s care. First, my elder brother and baby sister would have power of attorney over Mom’s affairs. Her financial situation required assessment, and a long-term plan for Mom’s care needed urgent discussion and execution.
It came down to two choices: Mom would sell her condo and either move into our home in Victoria, or she would move into a new assisted living residence a few minutes from my sister Patti’s home in Ottawa. Mom did not want to leave Ottawa, despite the fact that its familiarity of 40+ years would soon fade into oblivion. Fearful that Mom would burn the house down or be lost wandering the streets, we devised a plan to ease her transition into a new home. My sister took her out and at day’s end surprised Mom with a weekend stay at a beautiful care facility. Some of Mom’s favourite paintings and family photos were already on the wall in her new room and she admired the familiarity of it. Mom went along and soon became used to the idea that this new home was perfect for her. Long unable to cook for herself, a warm and welcoming staff now served her meals. She made new friends quickly, though unable to recall anyone’s name. Mom’s happiness was and is paramount and I encourage everyone around her to keep conversation light and cheerful.
Although I am fortunate to visit Mom every year, it’s tough to be far away from a loved one. I’m thankful to my sibs in Ottawa - Mike, Dorothy and especially Patti, for looking after Mom.
When Mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, the first call I made was to the Alzheimer Resource Centre in Victoria. A kindly gentleman answered the phone and the empathy and compassion in his voice was a huge comfort. I needed to educate myself on the disease, how an individual and family could best deal with it, available resources for long-term care and support services. A few days after our conversation, I received a large package in the mail, replete with a myriad of useful information. I was so grateful; I decided then that I needed to get involved.
Serendipity played a hand in my chatting with one of the executive staff at the Fairmont Empress, one of my clients. Barb and I quickly discovered that we both had mothers with Alzheimer’s, and she was involved with the Walk for Memories fundraiser. Barb invited me to come to the walk that was just a few days ahead. I asked her if the event needed anything in particular and she mentioned that something colourful would be welcome. I showed up in a bumblebee costume and helped lead walkers at the beginning of the walk route out of the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium. The hundreds of people who had come out to walk on a chilly January morning, in support of loved ones, moved me. I joined the volunteer walk committee that year, four years ago.
In 2008, I took on the co-chair position with a wonderful young father of two, Jason Heflin. We have a great team of dedicated volunteers; each with their own heartrending story of Alzheimer’s or other related dementia.
The Investors Group Walk for Memories event has grown into an upbeat, yet poignant, celebration of ordinary people dealing with the realities of an aging population and the effects of living with dementia. Alzheimer’s and the many forms of dementia are amongst the last great societal taboos, particularly amongst today’s elderly. We hope that through events such as the walk, we raise awareness of the disease and inform patients, families and caregivers that they are not alone and it’s okay to talk about it. An estimated 70,000 British Columbians have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia and of these, 10,000 are under age 65.
The next walk will take place on January 31, 2010. For more information, to make a donation or register for the walk, visit www.walkformemories.com
JANUARY 2010 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
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