The Old Address
Police had arrived, and the 300-metre ground search for James Berry was underway when Debbie’s cellphone rang. It was nearly 9 p.m., getting darker and colder by the minute, and her father was still out there somewhere.
“Hello?” Debbie said wearily.
Sylvia Adams was calling from her apartment on the other end of Victoria Park Ave., roughly eight kilometres south of Debbie’s townhouse. Berry had lived down the hall from Adams, 90, for more than a decade before he moved in with his daughter. A straight path can be mapped between the two homes.
“Your father is here,” Adams told Debbie.
Berry had shown up at her door, distressed and disoriented but unharmed. He had told his former neighbour that he couldn’t remember where he’d been, but the old address came to his mind, so that’s where he went.
“He was like a lost little boy,” Adams recalls later with a sigh. “It’s a shame. He was always full of fun and joking.”
The police picked him up and took him back to his daughter’s house. It’s over, Debbie thought.
But it wasn’t.
A Different Case
Patricia Triantafilou was in her car, running an errand on her lunch break, when she spotted an elderly woman dressed a little too warmly for the late-September sun. That was the first clue.
The woman was petite, wearing a cardigan over a thick sweater, shuffling down the sidewalk with a walker. When she tumbled forward, Triantafilou pulled over, jumped out and called 911.
“I’m always on the lookout for wandering seniors,” Triantafilou says. “It’s not the first time I’ve found one. Heightened awareness, I guess.”
Triantafilou, 45, knows the signs because her mother, Anastasia Skourtis, was a repeat wanderer. Skourtis was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2006, shortly after she turned 70. She got lost on four separate occasions that year. The first time, a TTC driver called dispatch for help when he noticed an elderly woman had taken two round trips on a Warden Ave. bus.
You can do everything right 23½ hours of the day.
“Another time she ended up at a funeral home,” Triantafilou recalls. This was on the Danforth, near the home where Triantafilou’s parents lived. Her mother had recently become convinced that someone had died and they should all be in mourning, which the family believed was a memory surfacing from her past.
The closest call was on a late-September day in 2006, when Triantafilou’s mother was found walking on O’Connor Dr. near the entrance to the Don Valley Parkway. A passerby who observed that she appeared confused and was overdressed for the weather called police. “This woman ended up staying with my mom the whole time,” Triantafilou says. “I want to cry when I think about it.
“After that we sort of got a grip.”
Together with her father and two sisters, Triantafilou, who works in the home health care field, sought guidance from the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. They bought her mother a MedicAlert bracelet etched with her diagnosis and emergency contact information. They added special locks to the doors and backyard gates in her parents’ home and made a schedule to avoid leaving her mother alone, which sometimes proved impossible.
The measures helped, but they still had close calls, which Triantafilou believes is inevitable when families care for a person with dementia at home. “You can do everything right 23½ hours of the day,” Triantafilou says. But it doesn’t take long for something to go wrong. That’s why Triantafilou believes citizens have a duty to keep an eye out for wanderers. She does so in memory of her mom, who died last year.
“You know the saying it takes a village to raise a child?” she says. “Well, it takes an army to care for a wandering senior.”
James Berry loves to laugh. Among the things that make him laugh hardest are his own jokes and catching people off-guard with wild declarations.
“Do you wanna look at pictures?” he asks a visitor on a rainy day in mid-October. Berry has just finished a bowl of Raisin Bran and is sitting on a couch in the dark living room. Debbie is across the room on a smaller sofa, running through a mental checklist of all the things she has to do on this precious day off.
Sure, the visitor agrees. Let’s look at pictures.
“OK,” Berry says. “But I’m not wearing any clothes in them.” He pauses, and then slaps his leg and cackles. “Ah-hah, hah, hah, hah! Gotcha!” His laugh is explosive, like a fake cough through a megaphone.
This is classic James Berry, and though Debbie is never quite sure what is going to come out of his mouth next, it is wonderful to see him so alive. How could she put this joyful old man in a home?
Her father has wandered five times since the first incident in April.
Long-term care is one of the options Debbie has reluctantly begun to consider. Her father has wandered five times since the first incident in April, and she has had to call police twice more to report him missing. His name and photo have been in the news.
In August he disappeared while Debbie was cooking dinner one night. Police found him five hours later and several kilometres away after a citizen phoned to report a disoriented elderly person.
Then, in September, he was missing for nearly 10 hours before his grandson found him outside a gas station a few blocks from home. Berry was soaked to the bone and carrying a bag full of groceries he didn’t remember buying.
“It’s hard,” Debbie says. “Because you remember your father from before when he was healthy and doing things on his own, to this point here, and it’s a big transition.