Evelyn Collins appreciates the little things in life. The highlight of her day is that singular moment of joy when her husband Fred stops whatever he might be doing to watch her with a steady gaze.
“It’s as if he is aware that I belong to him,” she says.
That feeling of fullness — knowing that the person you love more than anything in the world, loves you back —is enough to make anyone’s day.
It’s particularly gratifying for Evelyn.
Fred Collins is living with dementia. For years, Evelyn did all she could to care for her husband. She doesn’t like to talk about how she may have reached her breaking point. Any questions about why or how this came to be are of little consequence to her. But ask her to tell you about Fred, and what’s important to her today, and you have her rapt attention.
Visiting Your Loved One on the Memory Care Floor
Fred now lives on the Memory Care floor of Credit River Retirement Residence in Streetsville, Ontario, better known as Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. It is here where the family of five kids and five grandchildren has the chance to visit and savour the life they shared with their father. But for Evelyn, this time is especially precious, and if possible, even dearer than the remarkable life they began building together more than 64 years ago.
Evelyn can still remember the moment she first caught a glimpse of Fred. He was her brother Ray’s chum. Like a typical brother, he had failed to mention Fred’s good looks, the blonde hair and, especially, the intelligent eyes. When they met for the first time in her family’s home in Guelph, Ontario, Evelyn was a 22–year-old office manager; Fred was 26, a grade-school teacher. She knew she was in good hands, but did she know she was about to marry an adventurous man? An artist? A dreamer who wouldn’t be satisfied with a successful tenure as a teacher?
Like most young couples, their early years of marriage were spent raising a family. They relocated throughout southern Ontario as Fred transitioned from teaching grade school students —whom he continued to mentor throughout his life—to teaching high school students. The family eventually set roots in Etobicoke, and both Fred and Evelyn pursued higher education. Evelyn became a librarian at the University of Toronto, after receiving a Master of Arts and a Master of Library Science; and Fred, a Geography Specialist. For 30 years, he served as the head of the Geography department at Mimico High School, where he also taught art and coached the basketball and track and field teams.
At dinnertime, Evelyn leaves her suite on the independent living floor of the Credit River Retirement Residence to visit Fred on the Memory Care floor. On a good night, when she steps off the elevator, Fred will spot her from far away. He follows her with a steady gaze as she approaches him. Other nights, it takes time for Fred to recognize Evelyn. “Are you my wife?” he might ask. “Are you Evelyn?” Evelyn takes solace in the fact that he is always glad to see her. “His humour is still there,” she tells me, “and his intelligence still comes through.” Still, it isn’t easy for her to reconcile the changes in her husband with the man who once upon a time enjoyed a life where everything seemed to come so easily.
At the age of 57, Fred took early retirement from teaching and devoted the rest of his life to his greatest passions: travel and painting. He wanted nothing more than to hop into his beloved blue and white full-size Dodge van and drive across the country — east and west —sketching and taking photos of the countryside. His landscapes adorn the walls of his room on the Memory Care floor —a window into his world. He had been drawing all his life and enjoyed sharing stories of his childhood in St. Thomas, Ontario, where he and his siblings had whittled away their days playing near a pond. Perhaps it was through his art that he had a chance to reconnect with that place and time in his heart. Today, his art is a reminder of the man he once was and a source of great comfort and joy to his family.
Find New Ways to Care For Yourself and Those You Love
Living in the independent living suite has been a quiet oasis for Evelyn. There is a sense of relief that those more capable than her can take care of Fred now. “They’re very good to him,” she says. Not that letting go of the day-to-day caregiving has been easy for her. When she’s not visiting Fred, she likes to go for long walks. She’s the first to admit she’s not much of a joiner. “There will be a day,” she says when she will join others at lunch, but for now, she wants to keep to herself.
Her greatest joy is the fact that Fred’s still with her – he still belongs to her. And she wants to hold on to him for as long as she can.