We bid farewell to retiring Ballarat paramedic Gary Curnow this month who put his feet up and switched off the alarm clock after 35 years. However, this milestone is a bittersweet end to an era.
While Gary is already enjoying his retirement on the sands of Queensland and visiting his children and grandchildren for a well-earned break, there is an untold story about Gary’s departure that may feel familiar to many people who care for a loved one.
“This is something that I did not expect to be doing but unfortunately my wife of nearly 40 years was diagnosed with younger onset dementia at age of 57. She is now 60.
“Initially, the diagnosis was distressing for all involved. Particularly Wilma but, being the strong-minded person she is, she found a way to deal with it, accept it and get on with her life. She wasn’t going to let this beat her, we were still able to do the things we wanted to, including a European holiday which we had been planning for some years.
Over the last 12 to 18 months we have noticed a steady decline in her memory, mainly short term. Forgetting where she had put her glasses, phone, items of clothing, handbag; she could not remember if she had them or not. Even doing normal home duties, such as making a bed or putting on a load of washing, became an issue. Then forgetting where we had travelled, people’s names and the list goes on. Some days were better than others.
I noticed her speech was starting to change, she knows what she wants to say but cannot find the words.
So, I guess at that stage I went from being a husband to a carer. and life would not be the same again. It was not something that I wanted to be, as she has always been so independent and such a strong-minded person.
I have decided to retire from a career at Ambulance Victoria as a paramedic spanning nearly 35 years, a job I have enjoyed, loved and hated at times, I have endured life and death situations that we had the skills and training to deal and cope with. But dementia is something else. As paramedics, we dealt with patients with dementia, but the difference is we only managed them for a short time, gave them the care needed, and then handed them over for ongoing medical support.
I’ve found that caring for a loved one with dementia is very daunting, emotional, and depressing, watching this horrible disease take hold and cause destruction of one’s mind.
As a carer we have no one to hand over to – it is 24/7.
We have four beautiful daughters; they all have great husbands/partners and 6.5 grandchildren. All are incredibly supportive and helpful, two in Queensland and two In Victoria.
2020 has been a year that everyone wants to forget due to COVID-19. For us it’s a year we want to remember. We decided to do the caravan trip to Queensland to see one of our daughters and her family with a recent new addition of our first granddaughter.
Travelling with dementia certainly has highs and lows. We took our time, travelling and staying longer in locations to minimise any confusion about time and place. This worked well but Wilma still needed constant supervision with daily needs.
We visited some great locations, had some fantastic meals and met some wonderful people. But dementia was and is still with us and unfortunately this trip has showed me that it is relentless. Things we take for granted like having a shower, going to the toilet, getting dressed are affected by dementia. We travelled in a caravan which had all the essentials but stayed at caravan parks, which meant different locations and new surroundings. I noticed that Wilma had lost confidence in going to the park’s facilities by herself so I would have to go with her, which was not a problem but I certainly did get some strange looks from people for loitering outside female toilets and shower blocks. Now we make sure that wherever we stop has disability facilities.
We are now on the Gold Coast with our daughter who is due to have her first baby at the end of the year. This has been great news for Wilma and she is enjoying every minute of her time here.
I now find myself waking up in the early hours of the morning unable to go back to sleep. I worry about the future and what it may bring. I worry for Wilma and what lies ahead for her. I know what dementia does and I cannot do anything about it. Hopefully one day someone will find a cure. Unfortunately, this will not be in our time, but we live in hope.
So, we will continue to live each day as best as we can, we still plan to travel, we still plan to catch up with friends and family.
As carers, we need to take some time for ourselves, so we need to have the support of family and friends and support agencies that are available to us. But when travelling is difficult and can be overwhelming at times, we need to slow down and take a deep breath and relax. Sometimes it’s good just to do nothing for a day and enjoy each other’s company.”
Gary’s story is familiar to the thousands of carers in our community. They are our posties, our op shop volunteers or our barista’s. They are right in front of us yet sometimes invisible.