Deanna Mathewson - Image Credit: Contributed

Dealing with dementia

Upcoming Investors Group Walk for Alzheimer’s fundraiser across Okanagan helps those afflicted with disease and their families.

Deanna Mathewson’s mom died of a stroke in June 2010.

Her passing marked a decade in which Mathewson’s life had changed dramatically after her mom started suffering from dementia.

Dementia and the caregiving demands it placed on her led Mathewson and her husband to move from Burnaby to Kelowna, and for her to retire from her career as a nurse.

She also gained more insight about the different forms of dementia and how it impacts those affected and their families which has helped facilitate her current volunteer role with the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

Today, Mathewson facilitates two caregiver support groups, gives a Dementia Dialogue program presentation once a month and volunteers at society events.

She will be among the local volunteers chosen as honourees for the 2017 Investors Group Walk for Alzheimer’s in Kelowna.

There will be 21 walks taking place across the province on May 7, including in Vernon and Penticton, sponsored by Investors Group.

Since 2003, this event has raised more than $5.8 million to help meet the needs of people with dementia and their families, and Investors Group alone last year raised a record $813,000.

See more: New research into Alzheimer’s disease

For Mathewson, it was about 2000 when her mom told her she was having loss of memory awareness episodes, which would last 10 to 15 minutes.

“She would be in Orchard Park Mall and all of a sudden she didn’t know where she was or how to get out,” Mathewson recalled, speaking at the kick-off reception for the Alzheimer’s Walk in Kelowna held last week at the Vibrant Wines Winery.

In July 2003, the dementia took a turn for the worse, as during a visit to her mom and stepdad’s home in Kelowna, Mathewson was confronted by this statement from her mom: “You know dear, I know who you are but I don’t know why you are here or how you got here.”

Over the ensuing weeks and months, her mom’s dementia symptoms were getting worse, to the frustration of her caregiving step-dad.

By July 2004, the couple had moved into a retirement facility, but her step-dad didn’t like adhering to the scheduled meals and missed not having his own workshop to putter around in.

“He could still go fishing at first but that even stopped after my mom called the police one day and reported him missing, forgetting that he had gone fishing for the day and where he was.”

They then moved to a seniors’ care residence in Rutland that offered more care assistance for her mom, and Mathewson had her mom come stay with them in Burnaby for a week or two at a time to give her step-dad a respite break.

It was during that period when Mathewson decided to take early retirement from her job as a nurse at B.C. Children’s Hospital, sell their house and move to Kelowna to be closer to help care for her mom.

But the dementia progressed, and eventually the family decided to move Mathewson’s mom into a residential care facility.

“We got the call in May 2007 that a bed had opened up at a facility in Vernon. That wasn’t our first preference, living in Kelowna, but we decided to take it and make the best of it,” she recalled.

But she remembers the feeling of personal guilt at having to leave her mom in a facility in a different community, and her mom not knowing where she was or why she was there.

“They gave me a package of labels for her clothes and I went down to the laundry area and just lost it. I cried uncontrollably and felt bad for leaving her there. I felt like a real traitor to her when I walked out that door.”

But Mathewson was able to visit her mom a couple of times a week, and after three months a bed became available at a Kelowna facility.

“And as luck would have it, a nursing care coordinator part-time position at her facility came available so I applied and got it.

“So that allowed me to see my mom more often and monitor her care, but it also gave me the opportunity to learn more about the different forms of dementia there are and how it affects those individuals and their families.

“That was a really good learning experience for me. I always considered myself one of the luckier ones as with my mom’s dementia, she always recognized me and she did not lose her mobility until the last couple of months, so we could go for walks and do things.

“Whenever we would part, I would always say, ‘I love you mom,’ and she would say, ‘I love you to dear.’ Those were the last words we shared before she died of a stroke in June 2010.”

See more: Alzheimer’s society seeks walk volunteers

Unfortunately, development of new drugs to help alleviate symptoms for dementia patients has hit a setback, said Andis Kelgaris, an associate professor in charge of the cellular and molecular laboratory at UBC Okanagan.

Kelgaris said some experimental drugs had recently advanced to the testing stage on people but didn’t pan out.

“One can choose to be pessimistic but I remain optimistic that research will continue and we will will find a treatment. Of that I have no doubt, the question is when,” Kelgaris said, although he noted that for every $100 spent on dementia patient care, $1 is spent on research to find a cure.

He said the research complication presented by dementia is there are a series of failing mechanisms that lead to the disease.

“There’s probably not going to be one magic bullet to solve dementia. You knock out one of those causing mechanisms and the disease seems to find a way around it,” Kelgaris said.

“It is like cancer or HIV, I think any drug solution with involve taking a cocktail of different drugs.”

Kelgaris said his particular point of interest has been on body inflammation, one of those mechanisms considered a cause of dementia.

Inflammation is part of the body’s immune system; without it we can’t heal.

But when it’s out of control, such as with rheumatoid arthritis, it can damage the body, and it’s thought to play a role in obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Foods high in sugar and saturated fat content can spur on inflammation as well.

“There are some elementary things we can do to reduce the impact of inflammation, keep our body weight in check, exercise, sleep well…these are all elementary things we learn at a young age that we often ignore and then return to as we advance in age,” he said.

“We spend the first half of our lives destroying our health and the second half of our lives trying to fix the damage.”

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