They met when Cathie was 14, only a few years out from her native Scotland and have been together ever since. They’ve two children and three beautiful grandchildren, spread between New Zealand and Melbourne. Their marriage has stretched beyond 50 years, forged by challenges that would have shaken others apart.
For the last 20 years, Phil has lived with dementia. He was diagnosed at age 55 when he was riding high in Australia’s corporate world. “He was almost genius level,” Cathie said, recalling the razor-sharp mind that mixed with empathy and humour to create a highly-regarded manager. And then Phil started “losing his words”.
Cathie had noticed it but thought nothing of it. But one of Phil’s good friends noticed it. He was a doctor, and adamant Phil be tested. “I’m just so glad he told us – those early tests meant that we could get treatment straight away.”
But the last 18 months at home with Phil have created new challenges. Phil has recently lost the ability to recognise what he’s looking at. “He can hold a photo of his children and grandchildren but he doesn’t realise that they’re the family he has loved dearly,” she said.
How does she cope with the strain as this great love story enters this phase? “We have a great love for each other,” Cathie said. “That has helped us a lot. Right from the beginning, we had a partnership. Also, I’m pretty stubborn. That’s a part of it.”
Cathie was never too stubborn to ask for help but, like many encountering dementia for the first time, she didn’t know there was help available, so she just pushed on. Eventually, a medical professional came to Cathie to discuss the best ways to help Phil. “She asked me if I had heard of Centacare. I was quite naïve – I didn’t know anything about them,” Cathie said.
“But Centacare has helped me a lot. They do so much work with partners of people with dementia. I know that if I ever had any trouble or don’t know what to do next, I can turn to Centacare and they will help me.”
Phil attends Centacare three days each week. The visits help him to socialise and to continue his long fight against the effects of dementia. Cathie has become a regular at Centacare’s Memory Café – an innovation that is spreading across the Archdiocese.
The Memory Café brings together people with dementia and their carers. They swap stories, socialise, hear from industry professionals and enjoy each other’s company. The Memory Café at the Churches of Christ’s Moonah Park at Mitchelton last month drew one of its largest crowds. Cathie was among them.
“I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to come to the Memory Café when they started,” she said. “It’s a great idea. It’s great for people to speak to each other. Everyone I talk with has different symptoms. But, really, they are all the same symptoms.
“People may say: ‘my husband does this’. It’s different to what my husband does, but I can understand how it affects them.”
The idea for the Memory Café was sparked by the first Alzheimer Café in the Netherlands in 1997 that was set up to help with the emotional elements of living with dementia including fear, helplessness and stress.
Centacare’s Memory Cafés are held bi-monthly at Mitchelton, Gympie, Hervey Bay and Kingaroy. For more information, phone Centacare on 1300 236 822