Keith and Sonia met over the phone while working together at Myer in Northland about 50 years ago. Sonia was on the switchboard in reception while Keith was the accountant at Centre Management. One day he called for information and they literally connected and continued to ring each other.
Finally after three months Sonia wandered over to Keith’s department and out of the blue he asked her out. “I was only a chickie babe. I was only 18 and a half and he was seven years older. I think he was checking me out over those three months,” Sonia recalls. He arrived to pick her up in a white MG and Sonia was a little surprised. “In those days anyone who had an MG was considered a bit fast and a bit of a worry.” He had fitted seatbelts, which were just coming into vogue and she thought he was making a move on her when he leant over to do up her seatbelt; she knew nothing about them and got the fright of her life. That was the beginning of a long and happy life together from which a family of four children and now many grandchildren bloomed.
Now 75, Keith reclines on a comfy blue couch at the Indoor Bowling Centre while he waits his turn. He’s out with healthAbility’s Social Support Group for people with dementia, on a day excursion and lunch. His favorite topic of conversation followed by MG sports cars, is his beautiful wife Sonia. “She is a gem, she really is. She’s got a lovely nature and I must admit when I first met her I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was an absolute stunner, she had beautiful long dark hair down past her bottom; her ancestry was Ceylonese (Sri Lankan).”
Sonia still manages to joke, saying her hair was only ever down to her shoulders and never as long as he glorifies, but for the most part the Alzheimer’s disease which has stripped away so much of Keith, not only his precious memories, is nothing short of a tragedy.
When asked about his dementia he acknowledges chronic asthma as his only health issue and believes he’s cured himself of Alzheimer’s. Sonia clarifies, “it didn’t affect Keith so much in some ways, he lives in another world and thinks everything is fine so long as he keeps up with his medication. We will be married 49 years this year”, Sonia pauses and whispers, “I’m going to cry. I felt I lost my husband virtually from the time I gave up work last year. My husband’s not there anymore. In little ways he is, but he’s not there.”
About five years ago Keith had a really bad asthma attack and was admitted to the Austin Repatriation hospital. While there Sonia mentioned that his memory was really bad and the nurse suggested visiting the memory clinic. She booked Keith an appointment and after interviews, blood tests and x-rays he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Looking back, Sonia believes it had started well before then.
In the prime of his life, Keith was hugely successful, creative and always in control. Sonia proudly states, “Keith was a very clever man, one of his jobs was as an accountant, he ended up town clerk of Coburg, a very clever man in a high powered job.” They also bred and milked stud dairy goats on their home property at Plenty, which was more of a hobby than a money making venture. Keith even raced his MGs for fun and he finds the saddest thing about dementia is losing the ability to drive.
Sonia gave up her own professional work last year at a card company to be Keith’s full-time carer. “I could see the writing on the wall, I could see him sliding down and we had a few traumatic instances; I had to give it up, it was time. Before that he was at home on his own and quite capable.”
Without the weekly rhythm and relief of work, Sonia now takes care of Keith round-the-clock. She describes the constant stress and level of care like looking after a five year old. He’s had some falls and has wandered off on occasions. He’s not to be left by himself, leaving Sonia constantly on high alert, looking and calling out for him. Sonia is continually thinking of things to keep him occupied such as plucking leaves off firewood, hanging out washing or making his bed. “He’s so slow it gives me time to think up another task.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday a volunteer driver collects Keith from his home and takes him to his Social Support Group at healthAbility in Eltham. Sometimes they sing songs, play games, garden or go on excursions. No matter what they do though, it always involves a delicious meal. “The activities are great. The staff are marvelous, I can’t fault them and I’ve said to the staff if anything crops up please ring me so I’m aware if there’s a problem. They are really caring. Keith has one or two favorites there and he loves Mel the chef’s beautiful meals”, says Sonia. Keith enjoys the company of his new friends in the Social Support Groups. “They’re all great kids; I can call them kids because of my age, I was born in 1942.”
Sonia sends a journal along to the sessions and the staff fill in details from the day. It gives Sonia something to discuss with him afterward, as his short-term memory can’t recall it independently. When Keith is dropped back home, Sonia is there, refreshed and ready to greet him. “Without healthAbility twice a week I don’t know how I’d cope. If I didn’t have those two days, I wouldn’t get that break to meet a friend or just be by myself at home. I can scurry around without Keith, as he’s so slow; I go to the hairdresser, pay the bills and get things done.”
“He’s not interested in holidays or going away for weekends. All he wants is his home; he’s a homebody. It falls on me to keep him occupied, which is the hardest thing. We have got to have our breathing space.” Sonia too finds support for herself through attending healthAbility’s carer’s meetings at the end of every month. It allows about a dozen carers to chat and share their experiences and advice amongst the group. “It’s a nice way to get support and help support others.” With Keith being so dependent, it’s nice for Sonia to know she is not alone and that others understand.
“I went through a bad time with him shadowing. He would follow me around and I couldn’t even go to the toilet or the shower as he would be calling out ‘where are you, where are you’. It was horrific and confronting. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t have healthAbility, I really don’t,” Sonia says.
Sonia only found healthAbility after a frustrating search yielded nothing. After finding no brochures or advice on groups for Alzheimer’s respite Sonia firmly believed there must be some help out there so she just kept pushing. She went back to the Shire offices and on the second occasion the receptionist asked someone in aged care and they fortunately gave her the name of healthAbility. That in a way was her salvation and she has gladly received even more than expected in terms of information and support.
The future for Keith is not clear but as more time goes by his illness will progress and sadly there is no cure. Sonia says thankfully, “In the last six months he has started new medication and he is like a new man. We don’t know how long it will be effective as it might be days, months or years.” Despite this Sonia has still seen him slip backwards in the last two months in little ways, like him occasionally putting his clothes on backwards.
The next excursion for Social Support Groups is for participants to see Keith’s collection of MGs at his home. Keith will have his moment to shine as he’s been waiting to show off his large collection of cars and share his immense knowledge, a shrine not only to his passion but also a testament to his life’s success.