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Charlotte Phillips

“Are you my mother?” – by Charlotte Phillips

Some people may remember this wonderful little beginner reading book by P.D. Eastman, edited in 1960 by Dr. Seuss. A little bird hatches while his mother is off getting food and before she can return, the baby sets off in search of his mother. He has no idea what she looks like so he asks several animals along the way, “Are you my mother?” This book popped into my memory today as I sat thinking about my own mother. We’ve been spending a lot of time together over the past few years and lately there has been a shift in who we both are. There are times when we don’t recognize each other.

Age related dementia is a strange beast. It is a gradual loss of the ability to think and remember. But it is different for everyone. The degree of loss and the psychological reaction to the loss are like endlessly changing weather patterns one can never truly adjust to.

Dementia affects the sufferer and the caregiver in strangely similar ways.

As the daily care and comfort of our mom is in my hands these days, the struggles she faces at her advanced age, both physically and mentally, are front and centre in my life, too. My ability to think and remember what’s really important in the grand scheme of things is something I struggle with.

My 94-year-old mom’s stage of dementia is not a constant or predictable one. She is in a transition phase. Where half of the time she is sharp and witty and in the moment. She engages in intelligent conversation and digs up nuggets of childhood stories that are full of detail and colour. The other half of the time, she can’t hold a thought, asks the same question 5 times in the span of one hour, is very confused and frightened by the confusion, and seems lost, actually depressed. She is strangely aware of the disconnects and often says, “Charlotte, I’m losing it.” There are times when one visit with Mom has both versions of her switching back and forth. Like a child playing with a light switch, you can only endure it for a short time.

This long weekend filled with 150th Birthday celebrations of Canada, seemed like a shifting moment in my life. It was the first time in 8 years, that my mom and I were not celebrating Canada Day together.

Canada Day ranks higher in Mom’s life than any other special occasion. She used to organize city celebrations back in her civic politician days in Saskatchewan. Although as a Newfoundlander, she voted against joining Canada in 1949, she eventually became one of its most patriotic citizens and devoted her life to making our country better.

I made sure her red blouse and white pants were hanging together in the middle of her clothes closet before I left for my weekend at my cottage. I felt bad about leaving her behind and a bit angry with myself for feeling bad. While I celebrated in the sunshine with a raucous crowd on Salt Spring Island, I knew my mom was alone, maybe watching the rainy festivities in Ottawa on her TV. I wondered if this would be the last Canada Day she’d be truly aware of. I think this way about a lot of special days Mom has always enjoyed in her long and eventful life. It’s sometimes hard to be present in my own life when I fret about hers.

Last week, I drove Mom out to the Drivers Licensing Centre in a nearby suburb to apply for a new BC ID photo card for her. I had not noticed that her current card had expired almost two years ago. As someone who no longer drives, this card is proof of her identity and is rather important for legal, financial and flight purposes. Her passport expired last year and as her health is such that out of country travel is not in the cards, we never bothered to renew her Canadian passport.

This particular day, the irony of our task was something we laughed about even though we were not quite on the same page. “Mom, isn’t it funny that you have no valid government issued identification proving you exist?” She laughed and then asked if I was renewing my card, too. Like it was a membership in something we both believed in and doing so was showing our support.

When she stood to have her photo taken by the government employee, she kept smiling like most people do for the camera. Even though the clerk asked her gently not to smile, Mom could not comprehend the request. I thought, in the grand scheme of things, anyone holding up the card to check her identity in person with the photo on the card, would see a striking resemblance because, for the most part, Mom is always smiling.

As the coming year unfolds, I know I’ll be quietly asking the question, “Are you my mother?” This kind of dementia slowly takes ones identity away. There is no before and after, only a fluid, unpredictable in-between time. I guess living in the moment will have to be suspended sometimes. I will remember our Mom the way she used to be and treat her with dignity and respect. In the meantime, I will try to keep smiling, myself and to always be, “her baby”.

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Pete Quevillon

Kindness in The Winter of Bert’s Life – by Pete Quevillon

In early 2015, I made the decision to move my dad from an assisted living residence in Kingston Ontario here to BC. He was in need of more intense care and had no family left in Ontario. Seeing him two or three times a year when I went to Ontario for work just wasn’t leaving me with a good feeling and so I began the search for facilities here in Vancouver.

I toured several care homes and Windermere provided the opportunity for him to access a room as soon as we moved him. I knew several people whose parents had spent time at Windermere and all of them had very positive things to say about the quality of care.  While the first six months, until he became a BC resident, were at a full rate; once he became a BC resident he qualified for the subsidized rate. Fortunately for those on fixed incomes, the rate is a set percentage of  income always leaving at least 25% of pensions to bank.

As one would expect of a care facility, the rooms are rather Spartan but he has his own washroom and some of his own furniture and pictures to add a homey feel. There are regular recreational opportunities for residents, music, and a host of other diversions that residents can participate in at their leisure.

With the care of an aging parent, there comes the guilt associated with placing them in care…in my case lapsed Anglican guilt rather than Catholic guilt! Should I be keeping him in my home with private nursing care? Could we afford a more exclusive facility? Bottom line for me is that dad is happy and has people around him who truly care about his well being and are far more skilled than I in providing the necessary professional care.

I am a dedicated reader here on and have noticed a definite theme, of late, as many contributors are of the generation where care of aging parents becomes their responsibility,

It is all too easy to target our challenged, under-resourced, health care system with criticism — those concerns are certainly valid.  It is very much up to us to  be aware, and hold our politicians to account, to ensure improvements are made. Often lost in this conversation are those who work within the current system selflessly.  They regularly bare the brunt of frustration at the system and are targets of abuse, undue criticism and most certainly are underpaid.

As someone who has a parent in long term seniors residential care I see, up close and personal, both the shortcomings of our health care system and the extreme dedication and passion displayed by those health care professionals. Certainly I’m not alone in seeing, and being constantly humbled and moved by, the concern — and dare I say love shown by the health care professionals in my dad’s facility.

Very few of us could display the compassion and effort put forth in caring for a complete stranger — yet there they are with my Dad, day in and day out. From care aides and nurses to cleaning and kitchen staff, everyone seems to know Bert and constantly make conversation and take every opportunity to exchange some friendly humour and barbs with my dad. He thrives on the interaction and, despite his mild dementia and his inability to remember everyone on staff, he feels loved and valued by everyone on staff.

I’ve often said that the staff make him feel like Norm from Cheers…each time he comes back after our walks or trips out for lunch, he’s welcomed like a long lost family member. “Hi Bert”; “Where have you been Bert”; …all that’s missing is a cold beer on the bar!

I cannot imagine providing the same level of not only expert medical care to a nearly 90 year old, I’m not sure that I could maintain the cheery disposition and professional demeanour that is on display at Windermere at all times given the challenges of caring for seniors of widely varying needs. 

I would ask that our elected official, health care administrators and management continue to find ways to improve our medical system — but I also ask that we appreciate those unsung heros in our hospitals, clinics and care facilities.

To all of you, Bert says thanks!

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