Thursday, January 11, 2018

Paulette Gelinas: Changing our Definition of Care for Seniors

By Kathleen Thurber

Paulette Gelinas knows first-hand the importance of family and community support in the aging journey. She was brought up on a farm and when she married a farmer and settled close by, frequent visits to her parents were part of the fabric of her life. Even when Paulette and her family moved into Red Deer 45 minutes away, she saw her parents weekly. As her parents aged, Paulette gradually took on the role of managing and driving them to their medical appointments.

In 2012, when her parents were in their early 90s, they developed health problems and moved into a seniors’ lodge in a nearby town. Paulette’s mother, Beryl had developed early stage dementia. Although Paulette’s father, Paul, was in good health, initially, the stress of Beryl’s behavioural changes brought about by her dementia affected him and he experienced severe asthma attacks. Eventually he developed dementia at a faster rate than his wife and was admitted into long-term care. Paulette had a fulltime job but spent as much time as she could with her father, making sure he had the attention and care he needed. Her mother eventually moved into the same long-term care facility.

“The lack of what I consider proper care – from staff not having time to stop to listen and talk to residents or in some cases, not even saying hello, to inconsistencies in care that created conflict between staff and families – this was my biggest disappointment,” she says.

Her knowledge and experience has made her a passionate advocate for proper training of care facility staff in dementia. “I know that the facility caregivers have physically demanding jobs and most are wonderful, caring people who were very good about answering my questions about my father’s care. But they are working with the most vulnerable of our society without the level of training that is required. There needs to be a consistent level of training that helps staff understand the effects of dementia and results in a consistent level of care focused on the needs of the whole person—physical, mental and emotional.”

Right after her mother’s dementia diagnosis, Paulette had taken a series of courses on dementia from the Alzheimer’s Society that she views as one of the most valuable resources available for families and family caregivers. “I learned that dementia is very complex and unique in each person. There are general blueprints for caring for people with the disease but care needs to be customized for each person. And once something has been solved, a new challenge arises, or the person enters a new stage.”

Although dementia, stroke and other conditions may rob people of the ability to communicate, Paulette points out the person is still there. “I want the people who look after our loved ones to be trained to understand the effects of dementia and how to speak to and treat them. A senior may not be able to speak, but there is still a person inside. If you look in their eyes when you call them by their name and speak to them with kindness and caring, they understand.”

Paulette believes that for change to happen in seniors’ care, a change of attitude needs to happen at the highest administrative levels of care facilities. That change in turn needs to be informed by a broader definition of care for the whole person that is embraced by our society. She believes the shift is happening. A recent presentation she attended hosted by Red Deer’s Golden Circle, a seniors’ resource centre, focused on the importance of having a senior care system that addresses physical needs as well as emotional and mental needs. Another highlight was when Dr. Sheree Kwong See, Alberta Seniors’ Advocate, spoke at the Golden Circle. “Sheree was interested in everything,” Paulette says. “She took a lot of notes and her obvious caring about seniors was very inspiring.”