Advocacy, Love, Memories, Videos

after i put them in prison, mom’s bff became mine

December 26, 2017: In November 2012, I put Mom and her best friend Pia Roma in separate prisons.

Pia went to the friend of a friend’s where she hid under the sofa in a cigarette-smoke-filled apartment for a month. My friend rescued Pia from her friend’s, but that didn’t help. Pia hid under my friend’s bed for another month until I rescued her again.

Mom & Pia April 10, 2012, six months before being incarcerated

I didn’t want a cat. Just like I hadn’t wanted to return to Canada to care for Mom in 2011. But I couldn’t bear for helpless Pia who, in Mom’s words, was her “best friend” to live under a sofa or a bed for the rest of her life. So when I decided I needed to stay close to Mom instead of restarting my old life in a new way, I rented a house near the nursing home I would come to call “ElderJail,” and I brought Pia Roma to live with me.

I succeeded in rescuing Pia, but I failed to liberate my mom.

Since then, Pia has accompanied me through ups and downs, never saying anything but “meow” (like Zlateh the Goat said nothing but “maaaaaaa”), or purring loudly, and sharing my morning tea as she often did with Mom, which I captured on video on December 28, 2009, and aptly title “the paws that refreshes.”

Pia is getting old now, and will soon join Mom. I will be devastated when she goes. It can be painful to grieve the loss of those we love, but it’s also normal. For me, grief (and tonnes of other stuff) involves lots of tears.

But none of us should die before we’re dead, and so, in the meantime, Pia and I paws frequently to count our blessings. We hope you do too. We also invite you to remember that, even in prison, there is space between the bars.

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Joy, Love, Memories, Videos

what it looks like when an angel loves you

Our angel Gabrielle Vallée McKenna almost made it to her one hundredth birthday. She wasn’t quite sure of her exact birth date, she knew the year and the month (February 1916), but her recollection of the day varied between the 21st and the 29th. I know the date she died though: August 20, 2014. Her goal was to reach 100; she didn’t quite make it. Mom joined Gaby on August 17, 2016. I hope the two BFFs are raising Cain wherever they are.


On May 10, 2014, Mom was too sick and/or sedated with antipsychotics to do anything more than listen to Eric’s beautiful piano playing. She couldn’t sing, play or clap as was her wont. There were no Beatles tunes.  No Ain’t She Sweet?, no She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, no Doe a Deer either.

All Mom could do was sit in the chair with her eyes closed and let the melodies soothe her. About 15 minutes into the session, as Eric played What a Wonderful World, Mom’s BFF Gaby came in to the drawing room to spend some time with us. That was a bit out of the ordinary as Gaby slept most afternoons. As she walked past Patti, Gaby spontaneously bent down to kiss Mom’s cheek. I was lucky to capture the precious moment with my iPhone.

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Love, Memories, Videos

the paws that refreshes

December 28, 2009: Exactly when Mom acquired her little grey cat with the big yellow eyes is hard to say, but it was sometime after the spring of 2001 when Mom and I went to Rome on holiday for a week. We stayed at a little family-run hotel call the San Pio, saw amazing sights and created wonderful memories which Mom lost over time, but which I still have for the moment. Mom named Pia Roma for the little hotel and the trip.

I also don’t recall precisely how Pia found her way to Mom. She was either discovered  in the cedar hedge in front of Mom’s or given to her by a friend who lives on the East Road; I don’t remember which. It doesn’t really matter when or how they found each other. What does matter is that Pia became Mom’s best friend, her stalwart companion in the big red brick house on the hill.

Of all the cats Mom had over the years, Pia proved the oddest. In a strange and quirky way, she was the most endearing as well. She and Mom often had tea together in the morning, a ritual I captured on December 28, 2009, and entitled (tongue-in-cheek) The Paws that Refreshes, in which Pia has her share of tea from Mom’s new Christmas mug.

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Care Partnering, Inspiration, Love, Real life

more in touch with love than ever

Frans and Linda Buytendorp crop 1 October 2013
Frans and Linda Buytendorp, October 2013

“Caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s try hard to live in the here and now. If you worry about the future or dwell on the past, you may miss the special moments that occur in between.” Linda Buytendorp

Linda Buytendorp and her husband Frans were married in 1966. Frans was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, although he had begun to exhibit symptoms since about 2006.

In February 2016, Linda shared the story below in an online caregiver group. She did so, she wrote “in hopes of educating some of the new people, and maybe bring a smile to the faces of everyone.”

I was touched by her piece of daily reality, and asked if I might share it.

“Sure go ahead. We have no secrets. We’ve been in the Huffington Post,” she agreed without reservation.

Here’s one morning in the 2016 life of Linda and Frans:

My day started with cleaning urine from the bathroom floor from the one time I had slept through Frans getting up to use the bathroom last night. Without my help, he hadn’t quite hit the commode.

(FYI: Lysol bathroom spray cleaner with hydrogen peroxide sprayed on grout and left for awhile will clean it up without leaving a stain.)

After I shaved, showered and dressed him, Frans looked in the mirror and said, “That man is always looking at me.”

“What man?” I asked.

He pointed at his reflection.

“Do you know who he is?

“No,” he replied, stammering a bit. “Is he a bad guy?”

“Oh no! He is a wonderful man. One of the nicest good guys you could ever meet. We’re lucky to have him as a friend.”

I spoke the truth. He is the love of my life.

A bit later we went to Walmart, not because we needed anything but because I felt we could both benefit from some exercise.

Normally we would have walked around the neighbourhood, but the wind was much too strong to attempt our usual thirty-minute stroll. I decided we should drive to the store, and walk inside where we would be sheltered.

Frans had a terrible time trying to figure out how to get into the car. Finally, I had to lift his left leg and place it inside the vehicle before gently guiding his body the rest of the way in.

Just as I was finishing getting him settled, a friend of ours, Eiko, who is Japanese, saw us and came over to say hello.

Eiko sits next to us in church every week; Frans hasn’t recognized her or even spoken to her in at least two years. She and I chatted for a few minutes. As she was about to leave, I turned to Frans and suggested he might like to say hello to Eiko.

My husband, who had hardly uttered a word all morning, turned to our friend and said as naturally as he might have long ago, “Eiko, good morning.”

Even more surprising was that he responded in perfect Japanese!

Frans studied Japanese in college. In the past, he and Eiko would have limited conservations in her native tongue, but he hadn’t spoken Japanese in a decade, maybe more.

When he said her name it wasn’t soft and kind of dull in the way he has been speaking lately; it was with real feeling, connection and affection. It was if something inside him had suddenly woken up.

My heart swelled.

Eiko replied to him in Japanese, and he answered–again in flawless Japanese.

I was reminded, as I often am, that Frans is still in there and still here with me, and of how much I love it when these little surprises happen.

Yes, dementia care is fraught with pain and sorrow. But care partners such as Linda and I know that joy and healing are also possible.

Remember to keep your eyes and ears open for the miracles that may be found in your Alzheimer’s story.

“This disease, which is robbing my incredible husband’s mind, has put me more in touch with the feeling of love than ever before.” Linda Buytendorp

Advocacy, Inspiration

ghost people

old woman on chair


When I heard the CBC interview with Martin Pistorius, I knew I had to read his book Ghost Boy.

Pistorius sank into a vegetative state for four years after being struck by a mysterious disease at the age of twelve. His mind began to emerge from the coma at 16, but his body, with the exception of his eyes, remained paralyzed. No one around him, including his family, knew he was conscious because he was unable to communicate.

This is what it must be like for people with dementia in the later stages, I thought. They are trapped inside their bodies and cannot make themselves understood.

Pistorius’ book is fascinating. It describes what life was like for him as a “ghost boy” until, after years of him being aware but no one knowing he was, one of his caregivers saw glimpses of his potential and arranged for him to be tested; he was 25 years old.

Throughout this time, his father was adamant that Martin should be with his family, so he resided at home and spent his days at a facility for severely disabled children. When his parents traveled, usually once or twice a year, young Pistorius was taken to a “home in the country” where he lived round the clock for several days or weeks while his parents were away.

In a chapter entitled Memories, Pistorius graphically describes the abusive treatment he received in this place:

“Eat it, you f—ing donkey,” the caregiver snaps at me.

I stare at the mince lying gray on the spoon in front of me. I’m 21 years old and still the ghost boy.

“Eat it!”

I open my mouth, and burning hot food is shoveled in. The rancid taste fills my mouth. Bile rises in my throat. I forced myself to swallow.

“And another.”

I open my mouth obediently. I know I must try to think of something else if I’m to persuade my stomach to accept what it is being fed. I look around the room. The jarringly soft strains of classical violins play in the background as I look at the other children here. Some cry; others are silent. My throat burns as I swallow.

“Hurry up, you heap of rubbish. We’ll be here for hours if you don’t speed up.”

The metal spoon crashes against my teeth as she forces another mouthful into me. I wish she would leave me hungry, but I know she won’t.”

Pistorius goes on to say how terrified he became each time he knew he would be taken to this “home in the country:”

“As my heart beat and my throat tightened, I would long to scream and wondered if I could make my parents hear my thoughts if only I tried hard enough.

But the one thing I wished for more than anything else as I sat strapped in a seat, powerless to tell anyone about what I knew would soon happen to me, was for someone to look at me. Surely then they would see what was written on my face? Fear. I knew where I was. I knew where I was going. I had feelings. I wasn’t just a ghost boy. But no one looked.

When my mother or father finally came to pick me up, I listened helplessly as they were told I’d had another good stay.”

Martin Pistorius eventually emerged from his silent hell. He learned to communicate using a computer. He became a web designer, he married, he wrote a book, and he gave a TED talk.

But I cried through the chapter called Memories. I cried for Martin Pistorius’ pain and suffering and for his helplessness.

And I cried for all the vulnerable people in this world, many of them with dementia, many of them elderly, who are trapped like Pistorius was, who are unable to make their voices heard, who have no one to advocate for them, who suffer in silence and who are powerless and often forgotten.

They are our ghost people.

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Inspiration, Life & Living, Love, Videos

they may forget, and we should reach out

Alzheimer’s dementia care partners everywhere despair as their loved ones’ friends and sometimes even their family members seem to disappear, leaving both the person with dementia and their care partner feeling isolated and alone at a time when they need friends and support more than ever.

I know what it’s like; I’ve been there myself. It’s devastating, debilitating and soul-destroying.

There may not be any pain greater than being helpless in the face of a loved one’s suffering. When requests for help are refused, it compounds the misery.

MaryBeth Beamer captures the agony of her husband Alan Beamer in this gone-viral video:

In response, Laura Bowley of Mindset gathered a group of her friends who live with dementia (Jan Ford, Kelly Wood, Teresa Webb, Mary Beth Wighton, Michael Ellenbogen, and Chuck Frichot) to send this message of support and encouragement:

People living with dementia are still people. They have feelings and needs, like we all do.

They may not remember clearly, they may repeat, they may behave differently than they did before, but they are still there. Their spirits are alive and well.

Don’t run away from people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Run toward them. Reach out to them. Hold their hands. Love their hearts.

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Annie & Cricket, Fiction, Joy, Life & Living, Love, Our stories

better late than never

Holding hands painterly


“Hey Mom! There’s Stella,” Cricket said as she and Annie rounded the corner into The Home’s drawing room.

Stella sat in a big red armchair in the far corner. She looked up from the sock she was knitting.

“There you are,” Stella said smiling. “I was just about to leave because I don’t like to sit here all alone.”

“Well, you’re not alone anymore,” Cricket said. “Mom and I are here. Will you stay and chat with us for awhile?”

“Of course,” Stella’s reply was immediate. “I’ve missed you the last few days.”

Sometimes their timings didn’t match up, or one of Stella’s children took her on an outing.

Cricket rolled Annie as close as she could to Stella’s chair and stopped.

“Look Mom,” she said. “Here’s Stella.”

“Who’s Stella?” Annie stared into a space about three feet to Stella’s left and four feet behind her.

Stella, who was in her late nineties and still had all her faculties, set her knitting in her lap, reached out with her right hand and placed it gently on Annie’s knee.

“Hi Annie, it’s me Stella. I’m glad to see you. I’ve missed you.”

“Hello Stella,” Annie said. “Oh you’re a good girl.” She swivelled her head and eyes until they zeroed in on Stella, and then tapped the gnarled hand on her knee and smiled.

If Cricket had believed in God, she would have offered up a prayer of thanks. Instead, she just let gratitude flood through her for Stella, this place and the host of angels who staffed it.

Annie was recovering beautifully from a string of disasters in other facilities; after only six months in this new place she was like a different person. Cricket wished she had found The Home earlier. She would have spared her mom the suffering she’d been through the previous two years.

But better late than never.

Better late than never was her consolation.


This is the third instalment in a fictional series about Cricket & Annie; more here.

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Annie & Cricket, Fiction, Joy, Life & Living, Love, Our stories

it’s just not cricket

CRICKET-ICC-WORLD-T20-FINAL-WOMEN'S-ENG-AUS...England cricketer Charlotte Edwards (R) plays a shot as Australian wicketkeeper Jodie Fields looks on during the ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup's final match between Australia Women and England Women at the R. Premadasa International Cricket Stadium in Colombo on October 7, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Ishara S. KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/GettyImages)
Photo credit: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/GettyImages

“May I ask you a question?” Stella said.

Stella was unfailingly polite.

“Of course,” Cricket replied.

Cricket was compulsively transparent.

Stella’s hands worked without pause. She didn’t look up.

Pearl one, knit one. Pearl one, knit one.

Cricket knew nothing about knitting, but she’d heard “Pearl one, knit one,” somewhere and imagined that’s what Stella might be silently saying to herself as the needles clicked.

“How did you get the name Cricket?”

Cricket laughed.

“What did she say?” Cricket’s mother Annie asked.

Laughter always sparked something in her, despite the dementia.

“Stella wants to know how I got the nickname Cricket, Mom.”

“Oh. She wants to know how you got the name Picket.”

Her hearing was fine. Her processing not so much.

“Cricket, Mom,” she enunciated more clearly.


“Yes, that’s right.”

“Oh dear.”

They sat side-by-side on a worn-out sofa. Multiple lacerations in the slip covers exposed the dull yellow foam underneath. Cricket had her arm around her mother’s shoulder; she pulled her a little closer.

“You know the expression ‘It’s just not cricket’?” Cricket directed her question at Stella.

“Yes,” Stella replied.

“It’s just not cricket,” her mother repeated.

“It means something is unfair. It means something unjust or just plain wrong is being done to someone or something. It comes from the game of cricket,” Cricket elaborated.

“Something just plain wrong is being done to someone,” her mother echoed.

“Yes, that’s right, Annie,” Stella agreed.

“Well, it’s not from that,” Cricket deadpanned. Stella chuckled. Annie looked blank.

“I was born in August, right Mom?”

“You were born in August.”

Repeating was a comfort, and Cricket helped Annie do it. It was a way for her mother to contribute to conversations, to feel connected, to express herself when other means failed.

“That’s right Mom. In August.”

Stella glanced up from her sock-in-progress, and nodded encouragingly.

“You used to tell me the crickets were in full song when I was a baby Mom, and I was really chirpy just like them–especially at night.”

“Especially at night,” Annie said.

“Yeah. So that’s how I got the name Cricket, Stella. From the mating sounds of insects on hot summer nights,” she laughed at the irony of telling the story on a blustery November afternoon fifty-five years after the fact.


This is the second instalment in a fictional series about Cricket & Annie; more here.

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Death & Dying, Life & Living, Love, Memories, Videos

our angel gaby is raising cain

Flashback August 20, 2015: “I love my Patti,” Gaby told me just about every day for a year and a half.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that. People say “I love you” at the drop of a hat these days. But Gaby didn’t just say it. She radiated unconditional love like the sun’s warmth on a summer day; showered Mom with it like a gentle spring rain; enveloped her in it as one might cocoon a chilled soul with a thick, soft blanket on a cold winter night. I was privileged to witness this profound connection, and I’ve been challenged to capture it in words and images. But I’ve tried.

In March 2013, a few months after they first met I wrote (in a longish post about being lost and found):

The way Gaby looks at my mother cleaves my heart in two. It’s full of sheer joy, acceptance and love; it’s amazing to behold. Gaby’s and Mom’s friendship has deepened in tandem with my mother’s declining capacity over the past five months. That Mom is becoming more and more lost in an Alzheimer’s haze doesn’t faze Gaby in the least. She just looks at Mom and smiles, nods, and agrees with whatever gobbledygook finds its way from my mother’s mind to her mouth.

In loving words at sunset (which was featured on FreshlyPressed and has been viewed thousands of times) I eavesdropped while the sat watching the sunset:

I’m glad I’m here with my friend Patti, enjoying the sunset,” Gaby says.

“Is it time to go home yet?” Mom replies.

Almost.” Gaby slides her hand down Patti’s purple-splotched forearm. She gathers Patti’s hand in her own. “We’ll go together,” she says.

I blogged about the time Mom serenaded us with Zippity Do Dah. I captured on video what it looks like when an angel loves you. I videoed as they sang O Canada together on July 1, 2014. Five days later, I took the touching one-minute clip below of Mom and Gaby parting company before dinner – Gaby still ate in the main dining room; Mom had to go to the second floor. They planned to meet afterward and cause a ruckus.

Not long after, I discovered some promises, like some rules, are meant to be broken. I snapped dozens of pictures of the two of them and a few of the three of us as we shared this earthly space. I felt deeply grateful every minute we were together . The last time the three of us had dinner, Gaby and Mom watched a flock of seagulls on the lawn while I cleaned up afterward. Just before it was time to go, Gaby said to Mom:

“That’s nice of those birds to come here. And walk around for us to watch them.”

I felt the tender center of my heart cave in on itself. A second or two later as if on cue, the seagulls took wing leaving Mom, Gaby and I to do the same. I will be devastated when Mom goes home. But our angel Gabrielle will be there to welcome her and raise Cain. That’s one more thing to be thankful for.


Mom joined Gaby on August 17, 2016.

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Life & Living, Love, Memories

loving words at sunset

Could their chairs be any closer together? Gaby and Mom, August 27, 2013.

Flashback August 27, 2013: I love to treat Mom and her BFF Gaby to lunches and dinners at my place.

Mom, who is in her mid eighties and living with the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, can’t really carry on a “sensible” conversation anymore. Her friend Gaby is 97; most of her marbles are still very much intact. Gaby’s only major complaint (about which she hardly complains at all) is the corn on her foot, which sometimes makes it painful for her to walk. She’s also becoming a tad hard of hearing. Other than that, she’s golden.

Mom and Gaby found each other at The Home, where Gaby has lived for about six years, and Mom coming on a year now. They met after Mom moved into the room next to Gaby’s, and they became neighbours. Their friendship is flourishing, despite Mom’s ongoing slide into dementia. They share a table, along with two other residents, in the dining room at The Home; they have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Mealtime conversations are infrequent. People waiting to die don’t have much to say it would seem.

I visit Mom and Gaby at The Home almost every day, and I bring them to my place once a week for lunch or dinner, one of the few small pleasures they’re still able to enjoy. The atmosphere is loving and lively at my place. The three of us find more to say, to do, to be and to sing.

On this particular early summer night, Mom and Gaby help set the table. They hold hands and teeter slightly as they arrange the knives and forks while I prepare a simple feast: tuna salad with celery and mayonnaise, a few leaves of local lettuce, crisp carrot sticks, golden-toasted sesame seed bagels, and mixed olives.

They drink orange juice in crystal highball glasses I took from Mom’s real home when we decamped, and I sip sauvignon blanc from a funky goblet my cousin gave me. After dinner, I make Mom and Gaby comfortable on the back deck, then ferret out something “delicious and nutritious” for dessert: fresh peaches with yogurt and honey. On the way back to serve them, I stop short of the screen door that opens onto the deck, and pause to eavesdrop on their sunset conversation.

“Isn’t that a beautiful sky?” Gaby says to Mom.

“Yeah, and I told them it was. Dad thinks so too,” Mom looks around. “Where’s Dad?”

“Yes, you did,” Gaby says. She waits for this to sink in before she goes on. “He went to get our dessert.”

A moment of silence. Then another. Then several more. Gaby reaches over and gently feels Mom’s left arm, which is bruised because of the Coumadin Mom is being given to stop blood clots from forming in her swollen legs. She used to stride, purposeful; now she shuffles, uncertain, because of the drugs she shouldn’t be taking.

“Are you cold?” Gaby asks.

“No, I don’t think so,” Mom says. She pauses; searches. “Do I feel cold?” A fresh breeze blows through the screen door. Goosebumps rise on my arms; something in my chest squeezes like a sponge.

“You feel a bit cold,” Gaby says to Mom as she withdraws her hand. Together, they hold space for each other: Gaby in the slightly laboured rasp of her breath, Mom in the tissue she folds and unfolds, folds and unfolds, folds and unfolds in the cradle of her lap. The sun sinks a little more.

“Are you cold Gaby?” Mom asks. It’s not unusual for her to parrot what’s been said to her. It’s a way for her to conquer the aphasia that steals more of her words each day.

“No,” Gaby says as she turns to look at her friend. “I’m not cold. But you feel a bit cold.”

“I do?” Mom says.

“Yes,” Gaby affirms. Whatever Mom says, Gaby agrees. They never argue.

More silence. One looks this way, the other one that. They stare at nothing in particular: nothing in particular being the main thing they contemplate day in and day out. They have many days in. Days out are fewer and farther between. Gaby swings her right foot, and inadvertently kicks Mom’s left.

“Did I hurt you?” Gaby worries.

“No,” Mom replies.

“I wouldn’t want to hurt my friend Patti. You’re my best friend.” Gaby touches Mom’s arm again.

The sun keeps setting, as it is wont to do on kindred spirits everywhere, each day earlier and earlier until late December, then later and later until late June, when the cycle recycles itself. I guess it’s the other way around in the southern hemisphere, and different again at the poles.

Gaby and Mom don’t care about the hemispheres or the poles. They don’t worry about the length of the days: short, long, makes no difference. They’re all the same. Except days like this, when they get to go out. These are special days, even if they don’t remember them. I vow to myself that I will, until, like Mom, I don’t anymore.

“Your hair looks nice, Patti,” Gaby says. I wonder how many times Gaby has paid Mom this compliment today. Three? Five? Ten? More? Mom says nothing. She touches her head with her right hand. Pushes a roller-induced wave in and up. Still nothing. Perhaps she’s already forgotten Gaby’s words. Or maybe she needs a mirror to confirm their veracity. Not knowing the truth of one’s own reality is part of the disease.

“And that top looks beautiful on you. You have the nicest clothes,” Gaby continues, heaping one heartfelt compliment on another because she adores her friend. Mom looks down at herself. She moves her hands to just below her waist and pinches the bottom of the light-beige-and-white-striped shirt she’s wearing. She stretches it down and out to see it better. The stripes in the top match her caramel capris.

“Do I?” Her voice is flat, her face expressionless–more side effects of the medications that make her shuffle instead of stride.My hands tighten on the bowls of peaches and yogurt when I think of the drugs, the ones that kill my mother’s vibrant personality for convenience and cost saving.

“Oh YES! You are so stylish.” Gaby bursts with enthusiasm.

“Am I?” Mom doubts.

“Oh yes! Very! I wish I was stylish like you,” Gaby says, her grin as a wide as the horizon. “And you have such beautiful rosy cheeks. I love your rosy cheeks.” She leans in closer; her hand once again rests like a crooked feather on Mom’s arm. She plants a slow kiss on the pinkish flush of Mom’s left cheek. She’s oh-so-careful not to bruise her. Mom says nothing.

“I’m glad I’m here with my friend Patti, enjoying the sunset,” Gaby continues.

Mom seems not to have heard. “Is it time to go home yet?” she asks.

“Almost,” Gaby replies. She slides her hand down Mom’s purple-splotched forearm, and curls her craggy fingers around Mom’s soft, plump ones. “We’ll go together,” she says, and kisses Mom again.

I swipe the back of one hand under both eyes, nudge open the screen door with my foot, and step into the oncoming twilight.

In honour of Mom and Gaby who are surely raising Cain, wherever they are now.

A shared smile between friends, August 27, 2013.

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