‘You live for those moments’

Looking back, there was no one moment that alerted Harold McDonald’s immediate family that he was slipping into irreversible dementia. It took a visit to his sister’s home out of town for anyone to twig that Harold had changed. A lot.

Starr Bigmore shares a happy moment with her father

Starr Bigmore shares a happy moment with her father

Looking back, there was no one moment that alerted Harold McDonald’s immediate family that he was slipping into irreversible dementia. It took a visit to his sister’s home out of town for anyone to twig that Harold had changed. A lot.

“His brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s,” says McDonald’s daughter, Starr Bigmore. “I had taken him back for a visit with his sister and she said there was something wrong.”

Oh, there were incidents that, on retrospect, were out of character: he paid his rent three times in one month; he suddenly forgot how to cook; and he would spend hours watching a French television station because he couldn’t remember how to change the channel—but thought he knew how to speak French.

McDonald was diagnosed in 2006 with vascular dementia: the arteries supplying blood to his brain were narrowing, and he was being deprived of oxygen.

McDonald is one of a growing group of people living with dementia. In 2010 more than 500,000 people are living with the fatal, progressive and degenerative diseases that cause dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common form, accounting for 64 per cent of all dementias in Canada, according to the Alzheimer Society of B.C. January is Alzheimer awareness month in Canada.

Harold McDonald moved his family—his wife, four boys and daughter—to Port Alberni from southern Ontario in the early 1960s. A burly, strong man, he was a lift unit driver at APD mill for decades, retiring when he was 65.

“He was really a champion of people,” said Bigmore, who put together a poster of some of her father’s photos so he can look at them on the door to his room. “He would go out of his way to help someone.”

“Then it was a total flip. He could get violent at the drop of a pin. It was traumatic. It was a difficult period.”

The scary part, she says, is he lived on his own before and after his diagnosis.

She would go to his house every day to make sure he took his medication—reversing roles for the kind, gentle man who looked after his own wife for many years before her death.

Now, McDonald’s “neighbourhood” consists of three hallways of rooms at Echo Village, and a sunroom where he likes to watch the birds outside from the vantage point of his wheelchair. Bigmore coaxes a smile out of him for a visitor, and a sparkle appears in his eyes.

He doesn’t often recognize Bigmore as his daughter, and doesn’t really know he has four sons, which has been hard on all the siblings. But every once in awhile there is a spark of recognition.

“You live for those moments,” Bigmore said. “There are times when I go and I’ll sit and talk with him and he’ll get this look on his face and I just know he knows me.”

Within a generation, the number of Canadians living with dementia is expected to more than double to 1.1 million.

Yet a new national study shows that baby boomers have a troubling lack of awareness about Alzheimer’s.

“The gap in awareness in B.C. is sounding alarm bells as to whether our largest population is prepared for the rising tide of dementia that is ahead,” says Jane Hope.

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Hope is the support and education co-ordinator for the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

Perhaps more troubling, she adds, is that respondents to the national survey were unfamiliar with controllable risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and chronic depression.

Less than half of those surveyed in B.C. were able to identify later-stage symptoms other than the most commonly known loss of memory.

“This indicates a general lack of awareness of life-altering changes such as hallucinations and complete dependency on others for basic care,” Hope says.

“We need everyone, especially those 40 and older, to learn about Alzheimer disease, know the warning signs and reduce their risk by making simple lifestyle changes.”

Bigmore wishes she had known more about Alzheimer disease and dementia. “If I had known that having a heart condition (McDonald had angina) means you can have it, I would have taken him to a doctor and been more involved,” she said.

Next week: Giving support to caregivers of those with dementia.


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