29 February 2024

Illawarra nurse shares the heartbreaking reality of having a loved one living with dementia

| Keeli Royle
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Chevonne Cowell with parents Glen and Doug.

Chevonne Cowell with parents Glen and Doug. Photos: Supplied.

An Illawarra nurse is hoping to raise awareness about the ways dementia can impact families and particularly carers by participating in this year’s Memory Walk and Run after watching how her mother’s devastating diagnosis changed her family’s lives.

Chevonne Cowell had cared for many patients with dementia and knew how it could affect those around them, but she never thought she’d see it happen to one of the most important people in her life.

“I probably recognised that mum was showing signs of dementia at least for a couple of years before anything was ever said out loud, because I think I didn’t want to admit it and if I didn’t say it then it couldn’t be true,” she said.

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“When my dad and I finally talked to each other about our concerns, we’d both sort of been thinking the same things.”

Around six years ago, her mum Glen received the diagnosis, and Chevonne and her family have watched her decline firsthand.

“It’s who I see as the most strong and powerful woman in my life turn into someone who is frail and requires care and is timid now and scared to go out without someone holding her hand and needs my dad’s reassurance beside her, so it’s been tough watching that,” she said.

Glen and Chevonne Cowell.

Chevonne’s mother Glen was a strong feminist influence throughout her life.

Despite Chevonne’s health background and understanding of the disease’s progression, the small moments of heartbreak still catch her off-guard, like the other week when she was walking around the garden.

“I said something about ‘Well, you’re my mum’ and there was some conversation, and she looked back at me and she said, ‘Oh, do you need a mum? I could be your mum if you need someone. You’re a lovely person and I’m happy to be your mum if you need me to be your mum,'” she said.

“It’s those moments that take me by surprise still, even though I know that she comes in and out of reality and recognising who I am.”

Now that her memory is fading more, Chevonne said her mother seemed less emotionally affected by the diagnosis, but the struggle remained for the rest of the family trying to hold it together.

And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for her father, Doug, who still cares for Glen in their home.

“I think it’s watching how it’s changed my dad’s life as well has been the real game-changer for me,” Chevonne said.

Chevonne back memory walk.

Chevonne is participating in Memory Walk for her mum, but also her dad.

“At this point in their life they should’ve been travelling and enjoying their grandchildren and doing all these wonderful things together and that completely changed with that diagnosis where his whole life now is devoted to caring for her.”

Helping to create recognition and raise funds for carers are some of the reasons motivating Chevonne to participate in the Illawarra Memory Walk and Jog charity event this weekend.

“I put my mum’s name on my back but really it’s not just for my mum but for my dad,” she said.

“It breaks my heart how much he’s affected by it as well.”

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With more than 400,000 people living with dementia in Australia, and that number set to grow, Chevonne wants people to realise just how common it is and to remove the taboo around talking about it.

“I just wish there was more awareness about this being a disease that can happen to anyone; it happens to far too many people and I guess having those conversations early and getting help early so you can preserve what might be there for a little bit longer,” she said.

And she hopes that anyone who is a carer or has a loved one with dementia holds onto the fact that they are not completely lost and they are still the same person deep down.

“It doesn’t change who someone is, they’re still there at the core, it’s just the ability to bring those things back to the surface again,” she said.

The Illawarra Memory Walk and Jog is this Sunday 3 March, starting at Lang Park in Wollongong.

To find out more or to donate visit Chevonne’s fundraising page.

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