In the first photo, Jack Downey is staring at the floor. Brenda has her arm around his shoulder. Her eyes are closed as she fights, unsuccessfully, to hold back her tears.
Jack has been battling Alzheimer’s for seven or eight years. The photo was taken on June 19 – the first time Jack didn’t recognize his only daughter.
“It tore at my heart,” Brenda said. “It was traumatic for me. I fell apart.”
In the second photo, Brenda’s father is kissing her cheek. The smile on her face tells the story of the deep bond between father and daughter.
Jack and Jenita (Nita) Downey have been married nearly 50 years. They have a daughter, Brenda, and two sons, Brent and John.
Brenda says the first sign something wasn’t right with her dad was when he began putting his shoes on the wrong feet.
“He’d go to the fridge and get french fries to put in his glass instead of ice cubes,” she said.
Jack was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The disease progressed slowly for about six years.
“Dad still knew us, and he still went for his walk five or six times a day,” she said.
By late 2016, the family noticed the disease was progressing more rapidly.
Her dad began hallucinating, she said, imagining others were in his home.
He tried to get out of the home in the middle of the night, according to Brenda, describing her father’s state of mind as “mass confusion.”
Caring for her father eventually became too much for their mother.
“Mom was home alone with Dad,” she said. “I work in Goose Bay and my brothers are in St. John’s, so there was no support for Mom. I can’t imagine how she did it for so long.”
Jack was placed in the protective care unit at the Dr. Hugh Twomey Health Centre in Botwood three months ago.
Over 200 kilometres separate the health centre from the community of Baie Verte.
“Mom doesn’t have a license,” Brenda said. “She never did drive.... this has really devastated her.
“The first couple of times I visited Dad (in the hospital), I left with a terrible sense of guilt. I felt like we were abandoning him, but I also knew he was in a place where he was getting the care that he needed.”
Alzheimer’s is the most traumatizing disease a family can go through, according to Brenda. Losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s is like losing someone twice, she says.
“We are no longer his family to him,” she said. “He doesn’t know us anymore. So, we feel like we’ve lost him now. Mom is going through the grieving process because she’s all alone. Then, of course, when the time comes for him to go, we’ll lose him again.”
Before retiring, Brenda said, her father — who is now 76-years-old — worked as a heavy equipment operator at the Advocate Asbestos Mine.
An avid walker, he walked several times a day for about 15 years.
“This is a really emotionally draining disease,” she said. “But, we don’t have to sneak away (from the hospital) anymore now. I don’t know if that’s better or worse.”
Jenny Jefferies is manager of client care services at the Baie Verte Peninsula Health Care Centre. There is a fully enclosed wander garden there for patients with Alzheimer’s.
“People come in and take their moms or dads out into the garden,” Jefferies said. “Our recreation department takes residents out there, and they plant gardens of flowers and potatoes.
“Alzheimer’s takes so much away from you. This is an opportunity to give you something back.”
Staff at the centre held a Walk for Alzheimer’s Nursing Home Challenge recently.
The walk is a fundraiser for the Alzheimer Society of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as opportunity to raise awareness and understanding about the disease. “Alzheimer’s affects the individual that has the disease, but it also affects the family members and the hospital staff who help care for these patients,” she said. “And it affects the community as a whole.”
Visit www.alzheimer.ca for more information on Alzheimer’s.