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Dementia takes toll on Chilliwack power couple

Dorothy Kostrzewa
Dorothy Kostrzewa's husband Richard has dementia. Richard is this year's honouree for Walk for Memories.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

When Dorothy Kostrzewa's husband started forgetting things two years ago, she thought he was just kidding around.

Her husband of 55 years had always been a natural joker. So when he came to the breakfast table multiple times a week unshaven, or when he couldn't find his keys, or kept asking where his wallet was, "I thought he was pulling my leg," said Kostrzewa, former Chilliwack city councillor.

He wasn't.

Richard Kostrzewa, 85, was diagnosed in January 2009 with dementia.

Dementia is a brain illness that affects memory, personality, impaired reasoning, day-to-day functioning, communication, and problem solving.

In B.C., more than 70,000 people are currently living with Alzheimer's or related dementia – a number that is expected to more than double within a generation.

This month's Investors Group Walk for Memories is trying to change that.

Like most families dealing with dementia, Richard and Dorothy's journey the past three years has not been an easy one.

Within six months of diagnosis, Richard's calm, easy going character shifted 10-fold. He became angry, frustrated, impatient. He started throwing things, started yelling, started blaming his wife for his troubles.

"He got so impatient with everything and everybody," said Dorothy.

He took solace in alcohol.

Every morning he rode his bike to the liquor store, because he could no longer drive, and in the afternoon, would have a drink in the den. However, because he was on medications for the dementia, he grew "violently dizzy," and would often fall down – many times outside, in the middle of the street.

And because Dorothy, now 83, is a petite woman, who had just had a hip replacement that same year, she had to rely on neighbours for assistance in helping her husband up.

Their family pleaded with her to put Richard in a home. Their doctor told her it wasn't safe anymore. But more than five decades living with this kind-hearted, soft-spoken, caring man, Dorothy wasn't yet ready to give up on him.

"He was the most wonderful husband any woman could have and a really terrific father; he never raised his voice," said Dorothy.

"I told our doctor he wouldn't hurt me because he loves me."

But because cognitive abilities progressively deteriorate with the illness, for many, expressing frustration through anger is their only way.

“He was very, very angry with himself,” said Dorothy. “He would break things, if his coffee was too hot, he would swipe it to the floor, he would throw things. I have pictures without frames now.

“But every morning he would get up and not know what he had done, and he would feel so terrible, but by the afternoon, he was back to doing the same things.”

It took its toll on his wife, who was taken to emergency with her blood pressure at 200. Normal is 120 over 80.

"They told me I should be dead," she said.

Ten months after Richard was diagnosed, Dorothy contacted the hospital to come get him. He had been drinking, he was angry, she couldn't control him. The doctors decided he was unfit to return home.

For  two years Richard has lived at Cascade Lodge, where he has 24-hour specialized care.

Dorothy visits him once a week.

"I used to go once a day, but they told me not to come as often because it always upset him for days; it was better if he didn't see me so much," she said matter-of-factly. "He loves everybody else in there, but because I'm the one who put him there, I'm 'Bad Dorothy.'

"I miss the old Richard, of course I do, but when we get together now, we only laugh because we tell each other stories and laugh about them.

"Some women and men have guilt complexes when their spouses are diagnosed, but I don't," she said.

"Dementia is not discriminatory – it can happen to anyone."

The Investors Group Walk for Memories is on Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Landing Sports Centre on Spadina Ave. Registration is at 1 p.m.

This year's walk is in honour of Richard Kostrzewa.

For more information, or to register, call 604-702-4603 or visit the website at www.walkformemories.com.

kbartel@theprogress.com

twitter.com/schoolscribe33

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