“We didn't have it all together, but together we had it all.”
So reads the inscription on the mausoleum of Ottawa icon Tony Graham in the Beechwood Cemetery. It’s a reference to his marriage to his wife Elizabeth, a marriage that lasted more than fifty years. The inscription speaks to the successes Tony and Elizabeth shared during their lives, the turbulent beginnings of their relationship, and to their enduring partnership through the most difficult of times.
The most difficult of those times began in 2009, when Tony was diagnosed with dementia. After a while, he had to be locked in the house for fear he would wander away, which had begun to happen more frequently. Uncharacteristically, he began to lash out at those around him. He was unable to understand why everyone else had a key that worked on his front door, but he did not. And his anger was most often directed at Elizabeth, the person who was nearby and the woman with whom he had everything.
When Tony began to enter the later stages of dementia It became impossible to have him in the house but also unimaginable to send him elsewhere. 99% of caregivers to people with dementia will eventually have to make that difficult choice. But Elizabeth had the means to choose a third option. She had an addition built on their family home, one that was almost as big as the house itself. And in doing so, she became an expert.
When people with dementia stand on a dark floor, they can sometimes panic because to them it looks like they are standing over an abyss. Elizabeth Graham knows this because she designed the floors in Tony’s addition.
Sometimes mirrors can be dangerous for people with dementia, especially in the bathroom. When they don’t recognize the person in the mirror, it can feel as though someone is watching them bathe. Tony’s addition was built without mirrors.
There is a walk-in shower that drains directly into the floor so Tony didn’t have to step over the ledge to get in. There is an elevator for when he could no longer manage the stairs and a walk-in bathtub. The addition also features a dream kitchen and a spare bedroom, for the support workers who lived with Tony 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the final eight years of his life.
With every amenity imaginable, and 24-7 support to lessen the stress, those eight years were still devastating for Elizabeth. She started writing a book about it in 2009, to express the distress and feelings she had as Tony’s symptoms worsened. Eventually she had to set it aside because it was too painful to continue to write. Even now, trying to read the words is too much, and she breaks down. The last entry she made in the book was in 2012, five years before Tony passed.
She watched the love of her life forget who she was and forget who he was. But even as he forgot, she didn’t. She remembers one of her favourite support workers admonishing another for letting Tony spend the day in jogging pants.
“This is Tony Graham,” she remembers the support worker saying. “Tony Graham dresses well.” And indeed, most of the stories about this man before his dementia diagnosis do involve at least an aside that notes what a snappy dresser he was. And he remained so, right to the end, whether he recognized it himself or not.
It isn’t easy watching someone struggle with dementia. It takes a toll on that person, but also a significant toll on their loved ones and those who are there to care for them. Elizabeth Graham knows all about dementia thanks to the addition she built. She also knows all about the distress experienced by caregivers and family members because she was one. It is for this reason she has made the Tony Graham Automotive Group the title sponsor of this year’s Walk For Dementia. The Dementia Society helps people with dementia and their caregivers navigate a difficult road Mrs. Graham knows all too well.
It’s true when Mrs. Graham says that with Tony, “together they had it all”. It’s a testament to their loving and giving spirit that they want others to have some of it too.
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