David Topper

In August 2017 I walked with my wife Sylvia through the door of the Simkin Centre, carrying a suitcase – as if we were going to spend the night at a hotel. But this was different. After walking her to a room and getting settled, I left Sylvia there by herself, while I went home, alone.

It broke my heart.

The previous three years I had cared for my wife, watching her slide ever so slowly into an alternative reality, after the original diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and probably an early stage of Alzheimer’s in the spring of 2014.

During part of those years I took her to weekly meetings at the Alzheimer Society on Donald Street, where she attended group discussions with about a dozen others in a similar stage, coordinated by a social worker. While waiting for Sylvia, I often talked with those who worked at the Society, learning much that I would later need, and reading everything – yes everything, and closely – that they gave me to take home. It was all very helpful. I hence realized that eventually I would need to make a call to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for help.

Of course, eventually “eventually” came. I called the River Heights Home Care office and spoke to the case coordinator, who made a home visit the next day or so to assess our situation. She immediately set up further home visits by homecare workers, with stays of two-to-three hours once a week, or more often, as needed.  I was impressed at how simply and effortlessly this was all done. There were a few glitches over the year or so with the visits: once two workers came at the same time, and once or twice they never arrived. But overall, considering how many workers are being booked on any given day at given times throughout the city, I felt I had nothing to complain about.

Our daily situation ultimately reached the stage where a visiting social worker bluntly told me I had only two choices: admit her to a Personal Care Home, or fall apart. Some choice, eh?  

If seven years ago someone had told me about a building-complex housing 200 elderly residents, most of whom were in some stage of dementia, I would have pictured it as a place of hopelessness and despair.

And I would have been dreadfully wrong.

The two-and-a-half years of visiting Sylvia at the Simkin Centre, before she passed away, were an eye-opener. Not only was I exposed to a wide range of behavior that I had never experienced before, but more importantly I witnessed an extraordinary display of human kindness, compassion, tolerance, and patience among the staff and caregivers. The caregivers in particular often work under trying conditions, because some residents, unaware of their own behaviour, can be cruel and abusive. The caregivers, astutely, have ways of deflecting these acts, often using humour. Indeed, it was a pleasure to hear a group of them have a hearty laugh as a release and a relief.

In contrast to this, in the outside world, there are seemingly endless reports of genocide, mass killing and more – with statistics rattled off like scores in sports. Not much to laugh about. With so much hate and anger in the world, life itself often appears downright cheap. Cripes! It’s enough to make a fella fall into a state of hopelessness and despair.

For me, rather, the Simkin Centre was and is an oasis in the world; truly, a humane haven, where those who no longer can care for themselves are treated with respect and dignity. As such, it fulfills the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, our duty to repair a broken world.

As a final note: I realize that most exposés like this are tales of woe, complaining about “the system.”  But mine is not, for my experience was surprisingly positive from the beginning – which helped to temper my internal pain.