My father Josef was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 82. So began my long journey as a caregiver. Those years were some of the most challenging and difficult I have ever experienced but also the most rewarding. I have never regretted the special time I got to spend with my dad.
My parents immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1959. After working a number of odd jobs after his arrival, Dad started with the City of Calgary Parks and Recreation Department in 1963. My father worked for the City for 25 years. He was proud to have helped design and landscape the Conservatory at the Calgary Zoo, and later became Gardener Foreman of the Devonian Gardens, Civic Greenhouses and Conservatory. On his retirement, he received a photo of him with Premier Ralph Klein!
After his retirement, he kept busy in the garden at home. My mother had passed away at the young age of 57. Dad managed well enough by himself though – he cooked, gardened, drove himself around. I was always very close to him and we would talk on the phone every day.
Gradually things began to change. It’s so hard to know when something might be wrong, or when it’s something we think of as ‘just getting old’ – the memory loss, the slowing down physically.
My brother and I started to notice small things – Dad would re-tell stories, or we’d have the same conversations. He had these little sayings or quotes that he’d use repetitively, many times a day.
And then one day he was outside in the garden and he fell badly in the gravel, face first. After that we kept a closer eye on him.
Around this time Anna had come into our lives. She was Mom’s best friend from Germany and she got in touch with us 2 years after her husband passed away. She had one visit with us – and then it became an annual 9-month long visit. She became part of the family.
Anna would stay with Dad, which was such a blessing. They became great friends and companions and she helped look after him.
On Dad’s 80th birthday, it was time to renew his licence. He had a new doctor at the time and just barely got the OK. Dad was only granted a one year licence.
The year after that, at the age of 82, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
We’d arranged home care for Dad - they had come in and done a safety test and assessed him as OK to be at home with assistance. But one day he fell again, hurt his wrist, and was taken to Carewest Glenmore Day Hospital.
An entire team re-assessed him and they weren’t going to let him come home. “This man is going to fall” they said. I thought, well, let him do it at home!
But then he fell again. Badly. He fell backwards and broke his hip, went to Lougheed Hospital, and he never came home again.
That was a really upsetting time.
Dad didn’t understand that he couldn’t walk properly anymore, he would keep trying to walk and fall all the time.
Transitioning my father into care was very difficult, and it doesn’t feel like you have a lot of power or choice in what happens. It wasn’t easy navigating the system, or deciding on where to place him. But the Fanning Centre, where he ended up, was wonderful. Dad lived there for almost 2 years before he passed away.
When Dad was first diagnosed I was working full time. At first I was able to take Fridays off, which really helped. But once he was moved to the Fanning Centre I decided to retire. I was lucky – as a 30-year federal government employee, I was able to retire at 55 with a good pension.
Making sure he was well cared for was very important to our family. I coordinated it so that someone was with him every day. I am grateful I was able to retire and spend the last year of Dad’s life with him. I consider myself blessed – not many have that opportunity.
Caring for someone impacts your health in very strange ways.
It can be very stressful, and it really, really affected me and my health. I would tell anyone out there who is going through this - you really must look after yourself, it’s so important.
I’m so grateful for the support I got from the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. When Dad was first diagnosed I enrolled right away in the workshop series for family caregivers (now called Empowered Care). The course was just life-changing for me – the things I learned and how much more I understood. I think it’s really important to have the facts about dementia. To understand what was happening in Dad’s brain when he’d act a certain way made it easier not to get upset. I didn’t take it so personally.
The tools and tips I learned at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary really helped me to appreciate the time I had with my Dad, and not to worry about the small stuff. I realized I had been treating my Dad like a child.
After going to the workshop series I thought one day, ‘Your dad’s 83, a healthy salad or his favourite apple pie for lunch? What really matters here?’
And you can still laugh!
I remember one time trying to explain to my father that he couldn’t get up and walk, that he would fall. “I can’t walk?! But I was out by the river this morning catching fish!” he said.
Dad was always singing this particular German song. And he used to love to hear news about his home town in Germany, Dingolfing. We had found the town’s local paper online, and we would print out articles and news and read them to him. Of course it was all about the next generation, but he would think they were people from his youth. My brother would even create stories, gossip about people in Dingolfing, my father loved hearing it. It really brightened his day.
You learn to really appreciate the good times, and there’s a lot to be grateful for.
Dad was always his sweet little self, he always had this big grin when I walked in. I’m very, very grateful that he never forgot who I was, that he always recognized me.
I would like others who are going on this journey to know that it’s important to learn, to find out the facts. I wouldn’t tell someone who’s just beginning on the path how difficult and painful it can be, I would tell them my story very differently.
I would strongly recommend the courses I took at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Just to have that in-depth insight and understanding makes a remarkable difference.
I support the Alzheimer Society of Calgary as a donor because I really want to help other people in my local community.
I want them to have the same resources I had, and my wish for them is that it’s an easier journey because of that.
And it’s so important to have hope! Research must continue. Awareness, and hope, that’s the key. That’s why it’s important to support the work of the Alzheimer Society of Calgary.
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