An emotional journey: Caregiver shares the realities of life with dementia

Dolores Hay recognized the signs.
It was more than just memory loss related to her parents’ age. The stove would frequently be left on, medication was not taken and baths were sporadic. There was also the confusion, personality changes, mood swings and poor judgment.

Dolores Hay with her mother Irene

Dolores Hay with her mother Irene

Dolores Hay recognized the signs.

It was more than just memory loss related to her parents’ age. The stove would frequently be left on, medication was not taken and baths were sporadic. There was also the confusion, personality changes, mood swings and poor judgment.

Hay experienced it all first-hand as her mother and father both succumbed to Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

“It’s an ugly disease,” she said. “The journey is very demanding and exhausting. There’s lots of guilt, resentment, anger, hate, love – sometimes all at the same time. It’s heartbreaking.”

Hay took care of her parents for eight years before they were placed in Abbotsford’s Tabor Home in 2007. She used to commute to Burnaby several times a week while working full-time, managing their financial needs, meals, doctor and home health care visits.

In order to avoid burnout, she took early retirement from her job as a special needs teaching assistant.

“I literally became the parent to my parents,” said Hay, an Abbotsford resident in her 50s.

Baby boomers are getting hit from both sides when it comes to dementia. They’re either caring for parents afflicted by the disease or, now in their 50s and 60s, are being diagnosed with it themselves.

Boomers are the largest age group in Canadian society. According to Statistics Canada, up to 9.4 million of the 30 million-plus Canadian population will be over 65 by 2015. There will be more seniors than children.

Given that Alzheimer’s is a disease most commonly associated with age, this group is most at risk.

More than 70,000 British Columbians currently live with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, 10,000 of whom are under the age of 65. Every five minutes a person is diagnosed. That risk doubles every five years after turning 65.

Yet, according to an online survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, the majority of baby boomers are unaware of the signs and symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and other related dementia.

Twenty four per cent of baby boomers in B.C., which make up 30 per cent of the province’s population, couldn’t name any of the early signs of Alzheimer’s, and less than half of those surveyed were able to identify later-stage symptoms other than the most commonly known loss of memory.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but early diagnosis and treatment can slow the progression of the disease.

Diabetes, depression and stress are known factors that increase the risk of dementia. Exercise, and maintaining good blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help reduce the chance of diagnosis.

“The more education you receive, the more power you have,” said Hay, who is now a facilitator for a caregiver’s support group. “Speak to others who understand your frustrations and anxiety. I can honestly say it saved my life.”

Caring for a loved one diagnosed with dementia can be a complex process filled with grief and loss. Hay said her faith and sense of humour helped her through the tough times.

“I really believe that you’re given the strength you need when you need it. You have to believe in a higher power, otherwise you would walk away from it.”

Hay’s father passed away last February. Since then, her mom Irene has told her several times how much she appreciates her daughter’s efforts. A recent memory loss test required her to write a sentence. Without any promoting, Irene wrote, “I love Dolores.”

“It touched my heart,” said Hay. “That is all the reward a daughter needs, but we needed to travel the path to get to this point in our journey.”

– with files from Katie Bartel

WALK FOR MEMORIES

The 10th annual Investor’s Group Walk For Memories is on Sunday, Jan. 30 at the Landing Sports Centre in Chilliwack.

The indoor event includes a silent auction, music, face painting, door prizes and treats provided by Tim Horton’s.

Walk for Memories is the largest fundraising event for the Alzheimer’s Society, raising necessary funds for programs and services that support caregivers and people living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Funds raised will also go towards Alzheimer’s research.

“It’s just a day where people can raise awareness and raise money,” said Jillian Armit, local support and education coordinator for the B.C. Alzheimer’s Society. “We need all the money we can get so we can keep helping others.”

Last year, 250 walkers raised $19,500. Organizers are hoping to exceed that amount this year.

The event runs 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., with registration at 1 p.m.

For more information visit www.walkformemories.com or call the Alzheimer’s society office at 604-702-4603.