Although her father has Alzheimer’s, Nelson’s Wendy West considers herself lucky.
Her family hasn’t experienced any great tragedies, in part because they planned ahead and used simple but effective coping strategies for both patient and caregiver.
“We’re organized people,” she says. “We didn’t deny it. We paid attention. So many things could have gone wrong, but by being prepared, we were very lucky.”
Her father, Keith, first showed signs of the disease about 15 years ago. West’s parents lived in Parksville, but she would visit three or four times a year, and compare notes with her mother. She also joined a local support group to learn more.
Even from afar, she could do useful things: “First, you listen. Second, you get information and research, and third, you start to find opportunities to support at home,” she says.
Her mother, Dorothy, took care of Keith’s medications and day-to-day needs. Wendy kept in regular touch by phone and looked into what services were available.
She also provided respite during visits.
“Whether that’s releasing your parent who’s the caregiver and taking the Alzheimer’s patient for time away, or finding someone to look after the patient and taking your other parent away, respite is key,” she says.
Although they never outright told Keith he had Alzheimer’s, he acknowledged his limitations.
As his condition progressed, he went from not remembering simple things to no longer being able to drive or read, and then to wandering.
So he wore an identity bracelet. They made sure his name was on all his clothing and took him door-to-door to introduce him to neighbours. It paid off one day when he wandered off, for someone recognized him and drove him home.
West also talked to her mother about coping: “What was worrying her and what we could do to keep him safe and her sane. I suggested counselling, and she found people to talk to.”
Her parents lived on an acreage, so every time she was down, West helped out. The property was a lot of work, which her father usually did, but now her mother had to take it on because he couldn’t drive the tractor. Anticipating trouble, they sold the place, and moved to a rental home with a big fence.
When Dorothy’s health started to fail, they found ways to bring care into the home.
“We were so lucky to find good people that we could afford — not everybody can,” Wendy says. “And that’s tragic, because it saved Mom. It bought her a year and a half in her own home.”
Ultimately they began looking at extended care facilities, and decided Dorothy and Keith would come to Nelson, where Wendy could provide support for both.
Keith, now 84, moved to Mountain Lake seniors community about a year and a half ago. Dorothy lived first at Lakeview Village but has since moved to Mountain Lake as well.
Wendy says she sleeps better knowing they are here safe, although had her mother been in better health and able to maintain her social connections on Vancouver Island, she would have been content to have her father in a facility there.
Although she saw him often, Keith hasn’t remembered Wendy’s name for about five years.
“It’s been a sad journey and really hard to lose a parent,” she says. “At each stage you continue to mourn. There are positives, but I don’t wish it for anyone.”
Her advice for other long-distance caregivers: “Visit. Talk. Listen. Pay attention. Don’t sit with your hands folded. Be proactive. Find out what’s going on.”
As for her own experience, “I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done. I tried everything I could, and I think we were lucky.”