Kootenay family’s journey with dementia an eye-opener
“Mom copes by living each day as if she is still independent – that’s how she maintains her cheerful, positive outlook,” says Lori Smith, a retired nurse who worked in Trail.
Lori’s mother Donna is now living with Alzheimer’s disease.
For Alzheimer’s Awareness Month this January, Lori is one of many British Columbians joining forces with the Alzheimer Society of B.C. to say, “Don’t change. Even if they do.” The campaign aims to inspire residents to reflect on the ways they will continue to show up for the people in their lives who are living with dementia or are caregiving.
Getting a diagnosis for Donna was a complex experience. After seeing some early warning signs and increasingly concerned about Donna’s driving, Lori and her siblings reached out for an assessment but were initially referred to mental health services. It was difficult to get helpful answers and the family found themselves frustrated.
Lori went back to Donna’s family doctor, and eventually they got a referral to a specialized geriatric clinic in New Westminster. “They interviewed Mom, gave her a test and diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease,” Lori says.
Even though they had suspected a form of dementia, the diagnosis itself was a shock for everyone. Conscious about her health, Donna was diagnosed at the age of 87. She’d led an active, independent lifestyle, embraced physical activity and mental stimulation, and was careful about her blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Risk factors are aspects of your lifestyle, environment and genetic background that increase the likelihood of developing a disease,” says Mary Beth Rutherford, Support & Education Coordinator, First Link at the Alzheimer Society of B.C.’s resource centre serving Trail residents. “While controlling some risk factors can reduce the likelihood of dementia, it doesn’t necessarily protect a person from developing dementia.”
The family was connected to a nurse who went over local services available to them in the community, but they struggled at first. “There wasn’t much out there for someone like my mom, who lived alone,” Lori says.
Donna wanted to live on her own for as long as possible, maintaining connections through visits with Lori’s brother, who lived with his family nearby. However, the family found navigating the system and finding appropriate home support for Donna difficult, largely because Donna was still able to care for herself and Lori was advised to call back when Donna hit a crisis point.
The family’s goal was to prevent a crisis, so Donna spent time living with her children in Ontario and Washington, or with one of them living with her in Vancouver.
Accessing services was already challenging before COVID-19. The average wait time for a bed in a residence suitable for Donna is one to two years in Vancouver and Toronto. They found very few places that offered specialized care for active people living with dementia, with the monthly costs between $6,000 to $12,000.
The pandemic has further complicated the family’s dementia journey. “Community care is extremely limited,” Lori says. “Even hiring private home care was risky before vaccinations. The border closure excluded Donna from staying in Washington and has made it difficult to travel to see her in Vancouver.”
Lori has become an advocate for change because of her family’s experiences throughout the progression of Donna’s disease – from their difficulties in getting an actual diagnosis to finding adequate care for her. There have been complications at every step – and moving around within B.C. and outside of it has shown Lori that the issues are systemic and need to be addressed everywhere. She recognizes dementia needs national attention and action.
“There need to be innovative measure to care for and support people living with the disease and their families,” she says. “Its not the fault of the people doing the work,” she says. “They’re doing the best they can.”
The family’s journey has been eye-opening for Lori, who reflects on the fact that her decades of experience as a registered nurse didn’t prepare her for it. “Even as someone with experience working within the system, this has been a huge challenge,” she says. “What must it be like for others?”
While managing a complex situation, Lori and her siblings have worked hard to keep Donna engaged and supported, continuing to show up for her. “As caregivers, we try to support her by anticipating her needs and giving her opportunities for independence.”
During Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, the Alzheimer Society of B.C. is sharing the stories of people like Lori and encouraging the public to visit www.dontchange.ca.
Visitors can learn about the campaign, discover resources to help them stay connected to people in their lives affected by the disease and find support from the Alzheimer Society of B.C. “In an increasingly uncertain world, it is so important to show people living with dementia they’re not alone,” says Rutherford.
Photo Caption: Lori Smith (left) with her mother Donna take a walk in the park. — Submitted