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Sep. 22, 2020 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
From Alaska to NOTL: Keeping in touch with ailing mom amid pandemic
Martha Brown Truncale, with her son William, and mom Janet. (Supplied)

 COVID-19 has changed life for everyone. And when your mother is in long-term care, suffering from dementia, and you live thousands of kilometres away, keeping in touch means relying on technology and the innovation of dedicated workers in a Niagara-on-the-Lake nursing home. The author is an orthodontist, Coast Guard wife and homeschooling mom in Kodiak, Alaska. She is also the daughter of NOTL resident Dr. William Brown, a columnist for The Lake Report. 

Dr. Martha Brown Truncale

Special to The Lake Report

My family considered 2019 a difficult year due to the decision to place my mother in long-term care. Accelerating dementia had made life managing at home a burden for two older parents, not just one. A junction no one wants to reach.

I am the daughter that lives afar. An understatement given that my family lives on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Here, as with every corner of the globe, coronavirus has slipped into our community and forced a freedom-loving people to adapt to face coverings, physical distancing (normally reserved for bears) and ruminations over school openings.

Until now, I have travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake twice a year, enjoying family conversations, local walks and the familiarities of Canada. Not so, for the foreseeable future.

And what a year for the double whammy of long-term care and travel restrictions! Looking back, my visit in November 2019 was just-in-time. I got to see my mom in her new surroundings, provide some decorations and chew over the long-term care decision, however difficult that may have been.

My father and our friend Lynn both visited mom each day, taking her out for strolls around town, a latte, some errands and plenty of hugs. Then the long-term care doors closed and mom was gone. Months passed.

What did it mean to the family of residents in long-term care? Unfortunately we share tears with those who lost their moms and dads without even a final goodbye. We understand that maintaining safety for residents is paramount, but the sadness of separation is overwhelming at times.

Barring connection to loved ones has created the disease of despair among residents, their spouses, children and friends. Radical thoughts started to swirl within our family, recalculating the wisdom of putting mom in long-term care at all. For if this was to be the new reality, should we just bring mom back home? Is her safety a substitute for her quality of life?

Then cracks opened in that separation. Connections made via WhatsApp and FaceTime reached across town, linking her facility to my father, only blocks away. This was followed by careful visitations. Dad has related his recent experience of Romeo-at-the-fence in The Lake Report.

Takeaway here: six feet of space is a desert in dementia. For physical closeness is the language of care when the mind has retired to the quiet realm. A walk holding your best friend's hand reminds you of all the walks in a long marriage. A daily hug can replenish so much lost to conversation. This is the next allowance we will wait for. It is perhaps only achievable with a vaccine or instant, reliable testing.

Looking about, there is much to celebrate as an adaptive species. I have seen “hug curtains,” photographs worn overtop PPE in the ICU, drive-by birthday celebrations. Good for us. People are finding ways to crack open these barriers and remind each other that our humour, compassion and joy are not lost.

I thank our great facilitator, Ruth Simmonds at the Niagara Long Term Care Residence, who texts every week to set up my video chat with mom. I know I join many families in expressing our heartfelt gratitude that Ruth, and many like her, have taken on this role.

In the background, nurses, aides, kitchen staff and others that make days at long-term care roll on are surely having to invent ways of engaging residents who have lost their connections to family. We thank them, too, for stepping up for our moms and dads.

I used to talk by phone with mom every day. For most of my life I took for granted that she placed that call. As dementia crept in, I began to place that call and eventually I became the only one talking.

The back and forth faded to confirmatory laughs and alternate silence. Our phone-adaptation has been ongoing for more than a decade with this disease. Video chats in long-term care are our new version of this continuity.

I have learned that mom sparkles when I smile so I emphasize this. I remind her who I am, I give her grandson news, cat news, work news and yes, bear news.

In fact, I hold a cheat sheet of conversational tidbits so that I can keep a stream of chat at hand. I come to the screen hoping that we can step over this barrier again and I close with the same comment she and I have bandied back and forth for a lifetime.

“Well, that’s all the news, that’s new and improved. Love you, mom. Talk to you soon.”