Thursday, November 16, 2017

Brenda Bell: One Family Caregiver’s Personal Journey

By Kathleen Thurber

Brenda Bell spent many years overseas teaching English but she started her most challenging—and gratifying—journey after she returned home to Edmonton eight years ago.

“My mother Amy was 85, a former nurse, very independent, very smart, very capable and she lived alone in a two-floor condominium. But she started to have falls. I was teaching in Moscow when they told me that my mom had fallen again and the doctors were deciding whether to amputate her arm because she had smashed her elbow so badly. Even though they saved her arm, I knew it was time to come home,” she says.

Because Brenda’s siblings lived in different cities, Brenda became Amy’s primary caregiver. Amy’s whole life and career was based on caregiving, and Brenda knew she had a challenge in becoming her mother’s caregiver. As an early childhood professional, Brenda knew how to make this happen. “I focused on building trust with her so that she would respect my love for her. Gradually, we just switched our roles.”

Brenda is proud about being able to achieve that in a way that was most comfortable for her mother, and that kept her dignity intact. “I worked hard to adjust her environment so that her diminishing physical and mental capabilities were capitalized on and not seen as inabilities. You adjust the environment, just as you would when you work with three-and four-year-olds in a classroom.  You know that you put the things they need and use low so that they can get at them and the dangerous things you put them up high.”

One of the biggest challenges for someone with dementia is acceptance of the condition. Brenda recalls the moment this happened with her mother. “We were in a geriatric specialist’s office, and she was listening to the doctor. I could see in her face that she understood that her mind wasn’t working the way it used to and that things were changing. At that moment, I could see that she was no longer going to keep fighting it.” Brenda says. “From then on, everybody fell in love with her.  She was an amazing example of how a person can handle living with dementia.”

Amy’s health continued to decline and she continued to have falls. After each one, she required a new, more intense stage of care and support. “She was moved four or five times and handled each move really well,” says Brenda.  Both she and her sister-in-law put a lot of effort into making every place Amy moved into a new adventure that they were all excited about. They would spend the day before the move putting up familiar things in Amy’s room including labelled family pictures. “We were able to do this because we both lived in Edmonton, and we had the kind of lifestyle that allowed us be involved.”

When Brenda’s mother moved to long term care, Brenda met so many people whose adult children were unable to visit them; they lived too far away and didn’t have the economic ability to come regularly. Many others she spoke to didn’t have a lot of know-how when it came to dealing with an aging parent.

“We need to do so much more education. As a society, we spend millions of dollars and time and research on helping people become better parents. Now we need to help people learn how to become the adult caregiver of an aging parent,” she says.

In Brenda’s view, creating optimal care for our aging citizens should extend into how we build our homes and communities, how we construct our relationships, and how we do our work. In care settings, it means healthcare providers take the time to validate residents’ lived experience by listening to their stories. In Amy’s case, she was able to connect with healthcare providers in every setting because she had been a nurse. Brenda witnessed first-hand how those connections between seniors in care and their healthcare providers helped build trust with the family and made care easier and smoother.