My Dad was a victim of Alzheimer’s. I guess you could say, my mother was too. She did not have any of the medical symptoms, but at the age of 73, she found herself as my father’s principal caregiver in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. At the time, he was hallucinating at night, imagining wild horses outside his bedroom window in Netherhill. He stuck a fork into a live electrical socket, and sadly, unpredictably one afternoon, he gathered up all of my mother’s precious photographs from her native Russia and put them in a garbage barrel outside and set it on fire.
At the time, I was a single professional woman living far from my parents, with no real opportunity to spell off my mother from the enormous physical and psychological burden of caring for my Dad. In his last days, her own health failing under the pressure, she made the wrenching decision to commit him into a care facility several miles from where they had shared a life for half a century. Their only contact from that moment onwards was under the florescent lights of that antiseptic institution. My Dad, the gentlest human being you could ever know, disintegrated rather quickly in his new living situation. He became violent and agitated with the other residents, and he began to wander outside the grounds. Was he desperately seeking his own home? His own family? I can hardly bear to recall or imagine the distress in which he lived out his final days.
Like so many Canadian families, we had limited choices. I saw the price of that, every day in my own family. To her last breath, my mother never forgave herself for ‘abandoning’ her husband. I too have had my share of guilt, as the only daughter, too busy, too wrapped up in my own life, to come to the aid of my elderly parents when they needed me the most.
This country is the only one among the G8 with no national health care strategy to assist victims of dementia. We are blessed in so many ways in Canada, but imagination and creativity in social strategies are sorely absent. I can speak from my own personal experience. That is the backdrop in which I am producing an hour long network special on Dementia for Global TV’s flagship current affairs program, “16X9″. (April 26th, 7:00 EDT).
I have just finished the script. It was the hardest one I have tackled for a long time. More than once, I have had to walk away from the computer screen, my face wet with tears, recalling the anguish of the last days of my Dad’s life. And the emotional turmoil of our family, so ill equipped and overwhelmed by the cruelty of this disease.
If there was a country named Dementia, it would be inhabited by 35 million people today. We are still at least a generation away from a ‘cure’, according to the experts. In the meantime, we can expect the population of “Dementia, Canada” to blossom to 1.4million within a generation. That’s the population of Toronto.
In preparation for this network special, my shoot took me Northern Thailand and the Netherlands. Leave it to the Dutch to show the rest of the world a better way. I’ll take you inside the revolutionary “Dementia Village” for the daily cocktail hour at the pub. For a spin on a bike around the village, joyously led by 80- year old Mrs. Poa. A remarkable testimony to courage to try something new. And what happens when the government gets behind its brightest, most creative and inventive minds.
Let’s visit the second floor of a Winnipeg nursing home populated by 102 Moms and Dads and Gramps and sisters and brothers. Loved ones. Our darling demented…the men who fought for this country. The women who raised us. The teachers who inspired us. They are all there, still, behind the glassy eyes that loved us. Don’t we owe that Greatest Generation that ever Lived, a better deal?
Dad, this one’s for you.