Larry had always been “difficult.” Always had to be right. His way or the highway.
After retiring at 50, Larry became a handyman. In his 80s, he began spending more time at his cabin in Chilliwack, and less time with his wife Mardi Denis at their home in New Westminster.
Three years ago, Denis began to wonder if something was wrong with her husband of 60 years. He was no longer just a lovable curmudgeon. He was more irritable, possibly paranoid.
At first it seemed like an age-related “worsening of his character traits,” said Denis.
He became convinced the neighbours were dancing on the property at night and began calling the police repeatedly.
“I was concerned,” said Denis, 83. Sometimes Larry would lash out at her. “It was really scary.”
Although he wasn’t forgetful, those changes in behaviour were indeed signs that something was wrong with Larry’s brain.
After an incident during which he tried to crash his car, a policewoman found him on the road, raging.
Instead of threatening or cornering him, she hugged him, said Denis. “He softened in her arms and broke down in tears.
“She realized something was wrong with him.”
He was hospitalized, and they learned that Larry had frontotemporal dementia, a disorder with symptoms that include unusual behaviour, emotional problems, lack of insight, and sometimes paranoia.
Now she understood his rage and frustration. “It’s very scary for people to realize they aren’t the same as they used to be,” said Denis.
Denis was deeply shaken by the incident, and the diagnosis. She was in a whole new world, one that, like many caregivers dealing with a loved one with dementia, she and her family had to negotiate mostly on their own.
“You need to go to the doctor, and hopefully get a diagnosis. If you are not happy with that, push to see a gerontologist, or a neurologist,” said Denis.
Even though Denis was a retired occupational health nurse, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to get the information she needed. “I was lucky because I had experience dealing with the health-care system, and had a supportive daughter,” said Denis.
“The help is out there, but it’s limited.”
So she reached out to the Alzheimer’s Society of B.C., and found a support group that she attends once a month. It has been a lifeline.
“To say I need help, that’s a hard thing to accept,” said Denis. “You meet people who have been through something similar, who understand what you are going through. Reach out.”
It has given her the strength to become an advocate, and help others.
Most importantly, it’s given her the strength to help the intelligent and witty man she first fell in love with at a church dance so many years ago.
“We had so many good times. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we camped and we had fun together, and we loved to dance,” said Denis.
Although Larry, 89, is now in an independent living facility in Coquitlam, she speaks with him three times a day, bakes his favourite cookies, and visits as often as she can.
“After 60 years, you can’t stop loving and caring for a person, no matter how much they’ve changed,” said Denis.
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