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Living unhappily ever after at the Castle at the End of the Road

May, 2010

There are nearly a dozen people – all suffering some form of dementia – in large blue chairs along the edges of one half of the room.

Of the three facing the only picture on the walls, two are asleep. The third, a well-coifed woman in a bright red sweater, blows kisses, her fingers fluttering them into the air. Of the men on the other side, one was a professor. Another, who sits quietly while pop music is piped into the room, performed with the MSO. A woman in the visitors’ section is singing an old French folk song.

One of the women, facing the wall of windows, is crying. “I’m scared,” she says. “I’m scared.” Her foot is tapping fast on the hard floor.

“Non, non, Madame Melling,” a nurse tells her. “I’m scared,” she repeats. Melling is Vera Smith’s maiden name – she has been Mrs. Smith for more than half a century, but because Quebec identifies those in the health-care system by their maiden names, she rarely hears the name she recognizes as her own.

Vera’s daughter Debbie has arrived with two of her own children, Megan and Erin. She swoops in, kneeling before Vera’s chair and holding her hands. She wipes the tears away and says over and over: “You don’t need to be scared. Don’t cry. I’m here now.”

Megan pulls Vera’s chair to the visitors’ area so the family can sit together at a small table.

After some time, Vera stops crying, but her foot is still tapping. Debbie says it’s a tic she’s developed and puts her foot against her mother’s to still it. She pours Tim Horton’s coffee into a cup for Vera as Megan prepares butterscotch pudding she’s brought from home. It’s not vanilla: “That’s hard to get,” Vera says.

Today she is concerned about finding a substitute teacher. She was the original secretary at St. Willibrord School when it opened in Châteauguay in 1962. Debbie offers the names of staff members she knew then.

“I try to talk to her about those things,” she says. “To bring her back to that place.”

Four years ago, when Vera was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the family was unaware. “She was good at faking it,” Debbie explains. Then her husband, Frank, became ill. An avid walker, Vera was on her way to the hospital to see him but got lost. A taxi driver found her at the side of the highway.

Soon after her husband died, she was moved into a private residence, then into this government-run facility overlooking a river, which the family calls the Castle at the End of the Road.

Vera Smith and granddaughter Megan spend time together at Vera’s residence. Photo: Erin Leonard

The staff there speak mostly French – a language Vera does not understand – and the family says they feel the nurses could be more present on the floor. As the morning goes on, nurses help more residents into the big blue chairs and deliver medication and move on; the sitting room fills up with at least 12 patients. The nursing station is empty for most of the hour and a half they are there.

Debbie doesn’t put the full force of responsibility on the nurses. “It’s not all their fault – it’s the system. But what’s going to happen when the baby boomers start to go? I get upset when I come here. I know I shouldn’t. I’ve read about Alzheimer’s and I know she can sense my mood. Still … it’s not just her who’s failing. We’ve watched all these patients fail. I don’t think the government knows what to do with the old people.”

Megan goes to her nanny’s room for a sweater. The wall is papered with family photos – husband Frank, their three children and seven grandchildren. One photo shows her in her navy uniform; she was a cook on a ship in Halifax during the Second World War, but does not qualify for admittance to the veterans’ home in Ste. Anne de Bellevue.

A handful of photos date back to the ’40s and ’50s, when Vera lived “on the wrong side of the tracks” in N.D.G. An enthusiastic bowler who met her husband in a local bowling alley, she is also a champion yo-yoer who used to teach the skill to children in the park.

As the conversation slides to all the things that were, Megan says, tired yet earnest: “She’s not completely gone yet. She’s still in there. “I don’t know what’s worse.”

Megan Smith and teammate Jennifer Fink are marching in the Walk for Memories on Sunday, May 30, in the Old Port. To support the Alzheimer’s Society of Montreal through Megan, visit

Bonnie Sandler’s Let’s Talk About It column will return next month.



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