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Heather Tessier: Walk Star

By: Eric Bollman, Communications Officer, The Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County

Heather Tessier, Revera, 2019

Heather Tessier is a bundle of energy. I haven’t been in the door of Revera Barrhaven forty seconds before she has introduced herself to me, told me a story about seeing some mutual friends, and whisked me upstairs to the memory ward where her mother resides. I'm here to talk to Heather about the Walk For Dementia, as we start to sign people up for 2019.

Bustling through the ward door, she turns to Jen, the young woman on duty, and introduces me right away. “Oh COOL!” exclaims Jen. “The Dementia Society, I have so many questions for you!” I have to explain that I am not one of our dementia care coaches, and that this is only my second week working here. I simply don’t have enough knowledge about the subject to be of assistance, I don’t yet have so much as a business card.

But Jen takes down our phone number, 523-4004, and makes a note to call us later that day. This young personal support worker wants to know everything there is to know about the condition. She works with people with dementia for a living, and I can tell right away that she truly cares about each and every one of them. She’s excited at the prospect that she might learn something new by calling our office, and become better at her job as a result.

Heather mentions that I’m there to talk about the Walk For Dementia, and before she has even finished explaining it Jen has signed up. There’s one more member for Heather’s ever-growing Walk team, a team that last year brought in $3,000 for The Dementia Society.

We make our way through the room to Heather’s mom, whereupon Heather introduces me in the same direct and perfunctory way she did with Jen a moment ago. “Mom, this is Eric from The Dementia Society. Eric, this is my mom, Shirley Francoeur.” Shirley looks up a little, acknowledging the presence of someone new. She raises her hand, as you do, to shake mine. She forgets the next part though, and I am holding her hand for the next several minutes until something causes her to move again.

Shirley and Heather waiting to meet Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II at Rideau Hall

Shirley is 85 years old, a mother to Heather and Peter, a grandmother to Keri, Lee and Jacob, a former Sunday school teacher at Parkdale United Church, where I went to Sunday school. She attended Hopewell public school until grade 8 and Glebe Collegiate for high school. So did I. We both have Ottawa in our bones, Shirley and I. I’d like to think we commiserated about this, but I just don’t know how much of it Shirley was hearing as Heather ticked off her resume. Bell Canada employee, worked at JS Woodsworth and Merivale high schools, retired and spent time in Florida.

Heather can seem blunt, as she is more likely to rattle off a list of events than she is to describe them. I ask her what her mom was like when Heather was a child, expecting to maybe hear about the mother-daughter bond and write down words like ‘warm’ and ‘nurturing’ and ‘love’. Instead, I get another resume of sorts. Shirley was a single mom, loved curling and golf, a vast network of friends, she worked long hours and she took in boarders from the Hull Olympiques to help make ends meet.  Shirley still managed to get Peter to hockey and Heather to dancing lessons.  Heather and her brother Peter grew up fast and independent.

It is the same when it comes to the dementia. Heather runs through the chronology – they first started noticing the symptoms in April of 2016. By July of that year they came for a tour of the Barrhaven Manor. In August, they sent Shirley to live here for a week on a trial basis, and she has been here ever since. Heather shows me videos, both of her mom dancing with Irving, a downstairs resident of the same retirement home. The first is a fun, swinging dance video from the spring. The second video is from the summer, and there is a noticeable difference. Shirley is no longer energetic, and no longer remembers the dance moves she knew in the spring. And now, this. Shirley sits on a chair upstairs in the Barrhaven Manor, unmoving and unresponsive.

Heather and Shirley at Revera Barrhaven, 2019

Then Heather says something that suddenly brings this all into focus.

“I suppose I’ll break down some day.”

She knows that day is coming. It might be when her mom dies, it might be before that, and it may well be after the funeral is arranged and the will is taken care of and the grandchildren are comforted. One thing is for sure. That day is not today.

Heather must remain pragmatic about her mom’s situation or she could never do what she does. Every morning, she comes in at 7:15 to feed her mom breakfast. Every morning she leaves at 7:50 to go to work. The routine of this seem to be of the utmost importance to Heather, because in routine we create the mundane and in the mundane there is solace where otherwise there might be sorrow.

Shirley with other Bell Canada operators, 1953

It occurs to me not to push. Heather is not sharing warm childhood memories of her mother. She is not describing in fun and rollicking detail the almost-certainly movie-worthy adventures of her mom and her female friends driving down to Florida every year, golf clubs in tow. Any story that might evoke emotion could trigger the breakdown that Heather knows is waiting, brimming over behind her stoic wall.

Instead, we start talking about the others, almost all women, in the room. Heather knows most of them by name, and introduces me to each of them from across the room. I meet Beryl, whose son remembers Shirley from J.S. Woodsworth school. Christine, who is 101 years old. A pair of sweet older women sitting together and humming. Heather explains, after a while, that one of them is a resident here and the other is her caregiver. This woman’s niece comes to sit with her aunt and feed her meals the way Heather does with Shirley.

“Come in!” A woman is yelling at the door. “Come IN!”

She’s getting very frustrated, because the door is not opening and no one is coming in. Walking into the middle of the floor so I can see, and maybe be of some assistance, I know before I look. No one is there.

There are just eight of us. Four older women with dementia and an elderly gentleman asleep in his wheelchair. Personal support worker Ashley, who is cleaning up from lunch. They had fish. And then Heather and I make eight, sitting in chairs on either side of Shirley. 

Shirley and family, Christmas 2018

 Heather begins to tell me about her walk team. She signed up for the first time last year, and gathered nine other members to her team – friends and family who all knew Shirley, and who all wanted to walk for her. I get the sense that none of Heather’s friends or family have ever told her “no”, and that she has every intention of doubling their fundraising goal and expanding her team to 20 people this year.

“It’s a nothing walk”, she says. “It starts, and then it’s over. Who can’t do that?” She catches herself and gestures around her as though to say “well, of course not everyone can do that. But the point remains, the Walk For Dementia is very easy. For Heather and her team it’s more about companionship, camaraderie and joining together for a great cause and for a wonderful woman. A woman for whom Heather would do anything, including walk a couple of kilometres. Meanwhile, she’s examining Shirley’s wounds. Shirley has fallen recently, and her arm is badly scraped.

Heather and members of Shirl The Swirl, her Walk For Dementia team

“I hit the gym every morning before I come to see mom,” says Heather. “Gym every day, and I eat healthy, and I read about dementia.” At first I’m a little confused as to why she’s telling me this. It seems like a list of “stuff I do all the time”, another resume she’s firing off. Then the first crack I’ve seen in her forms. “I just worry so much that I end up…” she trails off, but we both know what she’s thinking.

There is no evidence of a genetic predisposition toward dementia. But knowing that one in three people over the age of 85 will get it is a terrifying prospect for Heather. She is doing everything she can not to end up in this situation – she has signed up for clinical trials on prevention, she is following the prevention guide to the letter. More than anything, she doesn’t want her own daughter having to do what she’s doing right now.

It isn’t easy being a caregiver to someone with dementia. It isn’t easy for Heather to see her mom in this home, to have conversations with her that elicit no response, and to feed her every single day. She knows it is difficult for the young women who work here as well. Heather speaks incredibly highly of Ashley and Jen and the others – Ada, Param, Amergitte. She says she knows her mom is in good hands when these “young ladies” are around, and she knows they care.

Shirl the Swirl 2018 - that is Shirley's brother, former mayor Larry O'Brien, on the right

This, she says, is why she helps The Dementia Society. It’s for the caregivers, who need so many supports and services and so much assistance. She’s very glad The Dementia Society is there, a one-phone-call resource for so many in her situation. So, I ask her, what Dementia Society programs have you attended?

“None, I think. Maybe a support group? Once?”

I’m a little stunned. You mean, The Dementia Society hasn’t really helped you in any way? You’ve haven’t called or attended one of our programs? It turns out no. The only time Heather has ever called our office was last year, trying to register her team for the walk.

This year, she has a more ambitious goal. “$5,000!” she exclaims, as though volume alone will make the goal achievable. “I’m going to recruit more people, and we’re going to raise more money, and we’re hitting Five K this year.” It’s an emphatic statement. For Heather this isn’t a goal so much as it’s an established fact.

This is, it strikes me, Heather’s approach to everything. Whatever needs to be done will get done. Shirley must eat, she will be fed.   And when caregivers and coaches need funding, they will get funding.

Shirl The Swirl selfie with Walk For Dementia emcee Trisha Owens, 2018

It’s time to go, and Heather bustles me out the door as quickly as we entered. Before she leaves she turns to her mom once more, hoping to elicit just one reaction before she departs. “See ya later alligator” she shouts across the room. There is no response, and she tries once more. We are turning to go when a faint voice reaches our ears, Heather’s hand on the doorknob.

“Not too soon, ya big baboon.”

Heather smiles, relieved. This, we think together, is leaving on a high note. We make our way downstairs and through the common area of the Revera, where Heather stops for a moment to introduce me to a genial, elderly gentleman. This is Irving, Shirley’s dance partner from the videos Heather has been showing me. He’s with the rest of the residents, settling in to watch a group of young people perform a dance routine.


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