Paul and Linda Blanchet have been married 29 years, but they’ve been friends much longer.
“Linda was my sister’s best friend, so she was always at our house,” Paul says, smiling. “We were in band together; we skied; we hung out. I’ve known her since I was 15.”
It wasn’t until years later, when Paul returned to Kamloops after working in New York, that friendship grew to love.
“We had a beer. Then we went out for another beer. That was it,” he recalls.
Decades later, they’re closer than ever, though Linda sometimes forgets who Paul is.
In 2012, Linda was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. She was 56.
Paul first noticed something was wrong when his wife’s real estate business started to suffer.
“She’d been stellar,” he recalls, “then things began slowing down.” Normally sunny and upbeat, Linda became anxious and temperamental.
“She was 54 at the time, so we thought, maybe it’s menopause?” says Paul.
Then the car accidents happened; two of them, quite serious. Linda’s once beautifully scripted handwriting became scratchy and she was getting lost in the myriad of passwords when she helped out at her husband’s software business.
The couple’s children, Matt and Monique, were teens at the time. They were reluctant to tell their dad, but their mom drove down the middle of the road. When Matt left for the University of Calgary, Linda was excited to take her son. Fears of the worst gripped the family’s hearts when she got lost.
“It was so unlike her,” Paul recalls. “She had a pilot’s licence.”
Smart, independent, adventuresome, Linda flew planes. She travelled to the United States as a newlywed because she was game to live abroad. She had her son in Atlanta and her daughter in Kansas City. Her father was a founder of Sun Peaks Ski Resort and Linda was an expert skier. Until she got lost on the mountain.
It’s a heartbreaking story, but it’s not an uncommon one. More than half a million Canadians live with dementia and that number is expected to double in less than 15 years.
In the early stages, people may be mildly affected and remain independent. As the disease progresses, they become dependent upon others for basic activities and eventually die of complications.
An MRI confirmed frontal damage in Linda’s brain. Cognitive testing suggested dementia.
“Our family doctor called,” said Paul. “We had a brutal and honest discussion. I was shocked. We got into research mode and a neighbour connected us to the Alzheimer Society, which was so incredible for all of us. We wanted to be advocates and spoke on CBC radio, met with Rotary Clubs and ended up being selected as the family for the annual walk in 2014.”
Trying to understand the trajectory of the disease was frustrating. Would it be two years? Four? Linda was referred to UBC’s Centre for Brain Health. Results confirmed Alzheimer’s.
“We decided to live our lives as much as we could, with the kids and each other,” Paul says. The couple wrote a living will and talked extensively about how the future might play out.
An engineer, Paul was methodical, organizing finances and planning family trips. Hawaii was a favourite. A passionate cook, he spent time making beautiful meals. He and Linda drank wine, savouring every delicious drop of their rich lives.
Linda was assessed annually, each time with worsening results. When she could no longer negotiate stairs, Paul sold their dream house on one-third of an acre and moved them into a townhome in 2015.
“I was showering her, dressing and feeding her. I could work from home, which was a blessing.”
Through it all, Linda maintained her optimism, never complaining, encouraging her family to embrace their reality without bitterness.
“One day, Linda looked around and said, this is the best care home in the world,’’ Paul remembers.
Then she stopped talking much at all. She wasn’t sleeping. Her care became all-consuming.
“I knew I was getting to my max,” Paul says, tearing up. “But I dreaded the day she would leave.”
That was two years ago. Linda now lives in full care at Kamloops Seniors Village, where her mother also resides independently. At 63, Linda continues to be surrounded by love.
“My daughter and I were setting up Linda’s room at the care home with her things,” says Paul. “She took a look around and said, this is the best care home ever.” The transition was flawless.
Paul sold his business and retired. Matt taught in Japan and Monique sang in Nashville. They’ve travelled together. They’re doing what Linda wanted: getting out there and living life.
Paul still visits his wife daily, Facetiming when he’s away. She no longer speaks or walks, but she locks eyes with him, sometimes sipping from a glass of wine he holds to her lips.
“I believe the hour I’m with her, life is better. She doesn’t know when I’m gone,” he says. But Paul does. He misses his wife; he misses his friend. His children miss their mom.
Still, they are grateful for the love they’ve shared. In 2016, Paul and Linda received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for their advocacy work. Paul lives by the motto: “Today is the best day.”
Shannon Linden writes articles, kids’ books, and grocery lists. Visit her at shannonlinden.ca
Support the Alzheimer Society of BC by attending Kelowna’s inaugural Breakfast to Remember, March 10 at the Coast Capri Hotel, presented by Valley Mitsubishi. For tickets, visit BreakfastToRemember.ca