By Lyonel Doherty
Donna Wager has dementia and she’s not ashamed of it.
In fact, the 64-year-old Oliver woman hopes people aren’t afraid to ask her about it because she’s not timid to tell them everything she knows. (Don’t worry, she won’t forget.)
After meeting her for tea and cookies, you would never guess she has the disease. She speaks eloquently and doesn’t forget anything during the conversation.
But just ask her husband Mike and he’ll fill you in more.
“She wrote a grocery list three times (after forgetting where it was), and she still left it at home. You have to laugh about it.”
Donna pipes up, “I keep saying to Mike to put me away when he’s had enough (of me).”
Then Mike quips, “I’m building the dungeon downstairs.”
Their sense of humour and love for each other is as strong as ever.
Donna was only 14 when she met Mike, 17, at a friend’s party in Vancouver.
“He was a bit of a hippy and I was a goody two-shoes,” she recalled, adding that she felt like Alice in Wonderland in that basement where the party was held.
Donna described Mike as a nice, quiet fellow; qualities she found attractive.
Mike said he liked Donna because she was a “prim and proper” girl, unlike some of the other females he knew.
They soon started dating, but her father didn’t like him very much and often referred to him as a “dirty” hippy. “Where’s that dirty hippy?” he would ask Donna when Mike wasn’t around.
Three years later they were engaged and bought a house before they agreed to get married. Donna worked in banking for 28 years, and Mike worked in a foundry for 40. They had two sons, now aged 40 and 42.
Two years ago Donna had hip replacement surgery and had an uneasy feeling about the anesthetic. She didn’t feel right because she was worried that she got too much of it.
“After the operation I had a heavy cloud (in my head). It felt like I had a fog that never went away.”
Four months later she noticed a change in her short-term memory.
“I couldn’t remember small things. I would put things down and couldn’t find them again.”
After visits to their doctor and numerous tests, a brain scan indicated there was a problem with the hippocampus organ associated to the memory function.
It wasn’t good news, but Donna couldn’t do anything about it, so she decided to deal with it by trying to remain positive and staying healthy through exercise.
Donna has early stage dementia and she knows it will get progressively worse.
She said many people don’t take the symptoms seriously.
“They say, ‘oh, don’t worry about it, I forget things, too.’”
But when it’s 10 a.m. and you can’t remember what you had for breakfast, something’s wrong.
Now Donna is worried about driving anywhere for fear of forgetting her destination or becoming lost.
She also worries about forgetting to turn the stove off, which has happened before. “I’m quite paranoid about that.”
Her biggest worry, though, is turning nasty towards Mike, which she has done in the past. So she has to keep that in check.
For Mike, Donna’s dementia has caused some frustration when she loses things.
She takes care of all the household bills, and sometimes her forgetfulness has resulted in late payments. But Mike admitted that he should start learning how to do telephone banking.
Donna said she has made it clear to Mike that she has no problem going to a care facility if it means that he has an easier life.
“We’ve talked about it,” Mike said. “We have all our ducks in a row and we are re-doing our wills.”
Mary Beth Rutherford, support and education coordinator for the Alzheimer Society of BC, said future planning among couples is very important.
She noted that various support services are available through Interior Health.
Locally, there is a support group in Oliver that meets once a month. (Call 1-888-318-1122 for more information.)
Donna said support groups are so powerful because they bring people together to share their feelings about the disease.
While awareness about dementia has increased, stigma and negative attitudes continue to persist.
The Alzheimer Society of BC has released findings of a new survey to coincide with Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in January.
The survey, which canvassed 1,500 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 65, reveals that 46 per cent of respondents would feel ashamed or embarrassed if they had dementia, while 61 per cent said they would face discrimination of some kind.
“Stigma significantly affects the well-being of people living with dementia,” said Rutherford.
“In order to build a dementia-friendly society, we need to move away from fear and denial of the disease, towards awareness and understanding.”
More than half a million Canadians have dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), and in less than 15 years, an estimated 937,000 Canadians will have dementia.
Rutherford said dementia affects people differently. For example, some may forget who their spouses are, while others will always remember them but may forget their names.
She advises people to eat well, exercise and keep their brains active to reduce their risk of dementia.