Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Our family has learned that it also takes a village to support an elder during a pandemic.
As my mother neared 100 years old on Nov. 17, and was still at home during this time of COVID-19, we were reminded of what a fabulous village Victoria is.
Thelma Fayle Sr. was determined to reach 100 years of age and she made it. I baked her a large tomato-soup cake with a hundred Smarties on it. Smarties for the Smarty.
She had a fun day talking to so many friends and family. It was the best birthday — for my mother and for our large network of family and friends.
Only six days later, my mother went to sleep and we lost her. It was her time to go and we could hardly complain. We had more mother than many ever get.
Our whole family will always be grateful that we were able to keep her safe and supported at home through the pandemic. We are especially grateful for the nature of our Village of Victoria — with plenty of caring and compassionate citizens always nearby. We were reminded that we are lucky in this community. We know how to pull together.
Throughout the pandemic, our mother had incredible support from her family doctor, her podiatrist, her denturist, her hearing aid specialist, the Island Health case manager that checked in on her every so often, the amazing and highly skilled workers at the Sunset Lodge adult-day-program, the beautiful couple at the repair shop on Johnson Street who fixed her old and fragile and inexpensive watch, the wonderful staff at the Apple Tree restaurant who constantly sent mum complimentary soups when she could no longer go out to their restaurant, her many friends from the Sons of Norway community where she had been a member for almost 30 years, and so many others.
Although she was getting frail and losing memory and had some dementia, her health seemed good and she was not on any meds (never believed in them). But if not for COVID, she might have gone into a long-term care facility this year.
However, that was no longer an option. So as her family, we learned to pitch in and do the best we could.
My sister Barb works from home and basically looked after our mom 24/7. Our mother lived with my sister for 35 years. In the early days, she helped with the grandchildren and for the last year, all helped grandma. Barb’s adult son Corey, a hardworking drywaller, was the anchor who cared so lovingly and diligently for grandma — whom he called Shorty.
As a family, we have a new respect for people who do care work. There are so many tough facets to the job that we were not remotely aware of. I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t love my mother so much.
The main thing we learned was to go with my mother’s flow and meet her where she was. Some days, that meant constant dealing with repetition and fears and confusion. We did our best to comfort her and soothe her and tried to make her laugh on occasion. She always had a charming sense of humour. We brushed her hair as one might a small child. That soothed her. We tried to anticipate all of her needs.
When she came to the kitchen table with her purse, we reminded her that she didn’t need any money.
“Everything is ‘on the house’ for you,” we said. When she forgot which room was hers, my sister put a beautiful glossy eight-by-10 picture of her on her door. Mum recognized the pink sweater she made decades ago and it helped her locate her bedroom.
The house was full of handwritten signs. “Walker Parking.” “Did you put your hearing aids in?” “No need to go in the garage.” “Extra toilet paper over here,” etc.
When she looked scared and didn’t know who we were, we tried to reassure her. The job was quite an honour. It took us nine full months of pandemic time to finally get the rhythm of it!
We are grateful that we had her so long, but supporting her took a lot of patience and time. We made mistakes and misunderstood things at times, and then felt guilty for taking so long to clue in. Like when I realized she had been unable to clean her dentures for some time. I felt so incredibly stupid. There was black mold on her dentures. But the denturist was so kind and understanding when he spruced them up.
Although our mother had a strong will to live, we know she would never have wanted to live in such a diminished capacity. She was always a lively person and always very involved in life. In spite of our pleas, she was always embarrassed by her frailty in the last year. Even at the age of 100, the loss of her independence still bugged her.
As is often true in life, this new circumstance of caring for our mother in the time of COVID gave us some hard-earned, deeper understanding. One of my favourite moments was when I helped her shower and bundled a big towel around her to keep her warm and she would smile and raise her arms when I helped her put a sweater on. I remembered her doing these things for me when I was a child.
When I would help to lift her up, she would caution me to be careful not to hurt my back. Right to the end, she was still teaching us with the kind and non-judgmental ways she was known for. On those last few days, as the palliative care nurses helped us figure out ways to make mum comfortable, I was in awe of their beautiful skills.
We are so grateful to the Village of Victoria and its hard-working caregivers of every stripe. You know who you are and we love you for it.
Now we just have to remember to emulate my mother’s brand of sheer determination for the rest of this pandemic — that will be over soon.
Thelma Fayle is Thelma Fayle’s daughter.