A tragic case out of Australia demonstrates the need around the globe for police forces to receive training on how to interact with those who have dementia,
Clare Nowland died after a police officer fired a Taser at her when confronting the 95-year-old woman, who had dementia and used a walker, because she was wielding a steak knife, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. She fell, hit her head and died about a week later.
The officer had been called to the care center where Nowland, a great-grandmother, resided because of the incident. According to authorities, Nowland refused commands to drop the weapon and approached them while holding the knife.
While such incidents may be more common in America, this tragic case is a stark reminder that we need better training and guidelines across the globe for law enforcement who engage with those with dementia. In the Nowland case, her refusal to drop the weapon escalated the situation, but we know those with dementia have trouble following directions of any sort. It’s not unheard of for those with dementia to lash out in a violent manner. My father was physically assaulted by a fellow memory care resident after my father became confused, thought he was in a restroom and defecated in the resident’s room. The attack sent him to the hospital.
The officer who fired the Taser at Nowland has been charged with recklessly causing grievous bodily harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and common assault, according to The New York Times.
With each passing year, it becomes more difficult to believe so much times has passed since my mother’s death in 2015. Death has a way of warping time, so one can feel the distance of those elapsed years but also be surprised at the sharp pangs of grief that can arise at random moments.
I made an active choice to stay in the caregiver community after the death of my parents and have no regrets about that, but it does keep the illness and end-of-life memories fresher than perhaps they would be otherwise. What is most disappointing is seeing so many family caregivers dealing with the same bureaucratic roadblocks and healthcare challenges that I experienced.
I’m grateful to be able to share my caregiving story and read the moving accounts of other caregivers.
An unusual thing happened this morning after I published this blog post. As I came down the stairs, arms full of laundry, I turned to a portrait of my mother that hangs on the wall at the top of the staircase. I said, “Hi Mom,” and continued on my way. About an hour later I was in the kitchen when I heard a crash and then something tumbling down the stairs. When I went to see what had fallen, it was the portrait of Mom I had just acknowledged an hour before. Mom was never a subtle communicator. It would be just like her to make a dramatic statement. For now, Mom’s portrait has a new spot in the living room.
I was going through family photos ahead of Mother’s Day and opened an envelope that I haven’t look in very often because it’s photos of my grandmother in her casket at her funeral. My grandmother on my mother’s side died exactly 2 months before I was born. I had never noticed that my grandmother’s funeral date and my mother’s day of death were just a single day apart in the month dedicated to mothers.
Behind the funeral photos were a set of tiny photos, just a bit larger than postage stamps. I don’t remember seeing these photos before. They were of my grandparents at the grave of my beloved uncle, Jim Carroll, who died just before his third birthday. He died from complications after an accidental drowning. I can only imagine the pain and sorrow his untimely death caused. My mother was born the following year, and she always said that she believed God gave her a sense of humor to lift the spirits of the grieving family, especially her mother.
In the photos, my grandparents are older, so I can assume this was taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Little Jim Carroll died in 1936 but the decades that had since passed had not lessened the love for their beloved child.
I think of Jim Carroll often, as I have what is a most precious heirloom: his shoes. Still caked with clay, the tiny shoes were handed down to my mother, who was disturbed by the sight of them. I told her to keep them for me. Now they sit on top of my family memorial display, next to his moving obituary.
If you are grappling with family loss this Mother’s Day, I hope you can find some peace and comfort.
I had a great time at the Atlanta Writers Conference Book Fair. It’s been awhile since I’ve attended a conference in-person. It’s always inspiring to see so much creativity on display.
To that point, I met several caregivers at the Book Fair who shared their personal caregiving stories with me. If you are on the fence about writing about your caregiving experience, I would encourage you to try, even if it’s in a personal journal and not for public consumption. Doing so can be a cathartic experience. You may find that you do have lessons to share that would benefit other caregivers. If so, there are many self-publishing platforms available, in addition to the traditional publishing route.
Understandably, while you are an active caregiver, you likely will not have time to work on a book project. I scribbled down notes, quotes, scenes, anything that I thought I might want to revisit in written form later. Sometimes having a bit of distance can help in framing an experience in a balanced way, but capturing those visceral images in real-time was important for me. I published The Reluctant Caregiver 2 years after my mother’s death and 6 years after my father’s death. Of course if you’ve been following my blog from the beginning you know I began The Memories Project within weeks after my father’s death. At the time I thought I would mainly be writing about my father’s journey with Alzheimer’s but then my mother fell ill. By the end of my caregiving journey with my parents, I had a variety of experiences and lessons to share.
No doubt you will too.
[To give you inspiration, check out the recording of Poetry for the Dementia Journey, a poetry reading event hosted by AlzAuthors. At about the 37-minute mark, you can hear a poem I shared about my father.]
I will be participating in the Book Fair being hosted at the Atlanta Writers Conference this weekend. The Book Fair is being held Friday, May 5 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. I will be there most of the day. My latest title, my award-winning children’s book, Slow Dog, will be featured, but I’ll also have a few copies of my award-winning personal essay collection, The Reluctant Caregiver, and a few copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias, which includes an essay I wrote about my father. All books will be priced at a special book fair discount.
The event will be held at the Westin Atlanta Airport Hotel. Conference details can be found on the Atlanta Writers Club website.
Shortly after my mother’s death, I learned that I had been selected as the recipient for the 2015 Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction, in the annual contest hosted by the Atlanta Writers Club. That honor gave me the confidence I needed to keep writing about my caregiving experience and eventually, publish a collection of my personal essays. So the Atlanta Writers Club will always hold a special place in my heart.
If you will be in attendance, please swing by the Book Fair room to say hello!
I’m thrilled to announce that my children’s book, Slow Dog, was selected as a winner in the Firebird Book Awards hosted by Speak Up Talk Radio.
Winning any award is an honor, but it’s even more special when it’s a contest founded by author and podcast host Pat Rullo of Speak Up Talk Radio. Rullo and her show have long been a supporter of caregivers and encouraging caregivers to share their stories. Contest fees support charitable efforts: handmade pillowcases and children’s books are sent to women and children experiencing homelessness.
Slow Dog was inspired by my rescue dog Murphy. If you are interested in donating to animal rescue, please consider voting for Murphy in a calendar contest being held by PAWS Atlanta. Voting ends April 28. Thank you!
While I love walking, I don’t enjoy working out on exercise machines and have zero interest in going to a gym. I prefer solo activities so exercise classes are not something that interest me. But I do enjoy gardening and yardwork and have thought to myself, while breathing hard and sweat pouring down my face, that such activities must provide a good workout.
It turns out that science agrees with my theory. According to a recent CNN article, gardening for fitness is set to become a health trend. The article provides an overview of research that supports gardening as an effective fitness activity. Included is a link to a CDC chart that shows the calories burned while doing common physical activities. The CDC says light gardening/yard work burns 330 calories for a 154-pound person. That’s the same amount of calories burned as dancing and golfing.
What I like about yard work is that it’s a full body workout. From raking leaves and hauling heavy leaf bags to the curb, to pulling weeds and digging holes for new plants, you engage a variety of muscles and also get a cardio workout. For me, it’s not only about the physical activity but the satisfaction one feels after planting something or removing weeds. A yard tended to your tastes can be a serene space for reflection.
For caregivers of those with dementia, gardening is something that could be a satisfying outdoor activity for both you and your loved one, at least in the earlier stages of the disease. Yardwork involves the hands and rote activity, something that those with dementia seem to find soothing. As long as those with dementia are physically capable, getting light exercise and spending some time outdoors on a regular basis is recommended. Do be careful to keep an eye on your loved one and keep sharp gardening tools out of their reach.
Dad would have turned 91 today. This is the earliest photo I have of him, taken at school and addressed to his beloved mother.
Such a serious young man, with his whole life ahead of him.
Dad didn’t have an easy life, but I’m sure while his feet were planted in the grass of his beloved Belfast, Northern Ireland, he never thought he’d live in sunny Los Angeles. His journey as an immigrant shaped his life, but he never forgot home.
At the end of his life, while in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, he talked about returning home, to see his sisters. We were able to honor his wish, in a way. Some of his ashes were sent to his family in Belfast.
Whenever I come across realistic, compassionate depictions of the dementia experience I like to share them here. Paul Romero Mendez, the filmmaker behind a short film named “Ruth” reached out to me recently. His moving film was released in 2021. The film depicts a woman with dementia who is lost in her own home. Highlighting this experience is very important, because while remaining in the family home can offer those with dementia the comfort of familiarity, the disease may strip away the very memories that makes the home feel meaningful and safe.
Many of us who have had cared for loved ones with dementia have had to confront the dreaded request to “go home.” But home may not be what you think. If your loved one is in a memory care center, maybe it is their last home, but it could be their childhood home. Time doesn’t necessarily move in a linear fashion for those with dementia. One minute they may be back in their childhood, the next a young adult, and the next to the current time. My father often asked to go home when he was in the memory care center, but he also talked about going home to Northern Ireland to be with his sisters. So I don’t believe home was the condo in Ruidoso where my parents retired. Home may not be a fixed place in the way we think of it, but a feeling of love and contentment.
The film was shot in a single take, so the audience can understand better the swirling cloud of confusion that those with dementia may contend with on a daily basis. It’s a powerful depiction, filmed with compassion. You can watch the film below. (This is a different short film from the one I posted about in January, which is also called Ruth.)
I’m glad to see The New York Times covering this important, but often overlooked issue. For solo elders, the requirement for a medical escort to accompany them to and from procedures is a burden that is difficult and expensive to overcome. It can be so difficult that elders decide it’s not worth the hassle and skip the procedure altogether.
Colonoscopies are probably the most common procedure that falls under this rule. Because of the sedative medications used, medical providers require an escort, so a person can’t use an Uber or Lyft as transportation. The escort needs to be a person known to the individual or a medical professional. Not all elders have loved ones still living or located nearby to assist them. And the cost of medical professionals to provide escort service is not covered by Medicare.
This is one of many issues that the population of elder orphans, those without a local support network, can face.
My mother was forced to pay out of pocket for expensive medical transportation to get her to and from her cancer screenings and follow up tests. It makes no sense that Medicaid covers nonemergency medical transport, but Medicare doesn’t.
The article highlights resources solo elders may be able to utilize, including nonprofits and home care companies. Those involved in religious organizations may consider reaching out to their congregation. While there are resources, they take time, effort and sometimes money to utilize. The onus should not be on the patient to jump over high hurdles to access these potentially life-saving procedures.