Content warning: this piece mentions mental illness and death.
I hold this collection of memories close to my heart. This is for you, Baba. Love, Nikola.
Spending every day with someone shapes you. When that person leaves, everything comes to a standstill.
My baba, who I lived with, went through a dramatic change in the last two years of her life. She was diagnosed with dementia, and my dad and I witnessed it all.
It was weird looking after someone who took care of me since I was a baby. I remember my baba telling me stories of her chasing me around the house when I was three — I would climb on top of the couches and jump off them like I didn’t care if I hurt myself.
My baba married my dido, Nick Elash, in 1948 and moved to the Elash family farm, where she lived, worked, and raised a family. She did daily tasks — such as feeding the pigs and tending the three gardens (one specifically used for local farmers’ markets). The home quarter included a barn, multiple red bins, and an endless amount of grass. She lived on the farm for 63 years, until she decided to move to Saskatoon.
My baba, Mary Elash, moved back to her (now 100-year-old) farm in spring of 2011 where I was living with my dad. She said she didn’t like the city life.
It was a sunny day when she moved back. The light blinded me while I helped unpack my uncle’s truck. The lilac bushes were in full bloom — purple, white, and green. My baba smiled, showing most of her teeth. I knew she would go out in the early evening and dig up some weeds out of the garden after she had a nap.
Baba moving back to the farm meant we could cook together. We could make her famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies — a recipe adored by all of her grandchildren.
She had an endless number of delicious recipes of traditional Ukrainian food — perogies, cabbage rolls, and cornmeal buns. Her borscht was my all-time favourite. She took time to make fresh bread — an unthinkable task for many in this day and age.
My baba was hardworking, loving, and stubborn. She’d been stubborn her whole life, even when dementia weighed her down.
Being raised as a Ukrainian Catholic, she was committed to her religion. Her daily routine consisted of praying when she got up, praying before every meal, and saying a prayer before bed. She read the Bible every day.
She had thin white hair and soft faded-blue eyes. Her face was well-worn with deep set wrinkles, deepened from countless hours of working outdoors in the sun. She had the most beautiful smile. She liked to brag she had her own teeth and didn’t need dentures. She could weed a garden in no time.
My baba had vision problems. She had cataract surgery on both of her eyes around 12 years ago, and she needed glasses to read. Her glasses would sit on top of her head or hang on the collar of her shirt for quick access to them whenever she wanted to work on a word search.
We turned the TV captions on because she had a hard time hearing. She became dependent on them, and she enjoyed watching the news, The Weather Network, and Toronto Blue Jays games.
I remember watching Game 5 of the American League Division Series (ALDS) with her. The Texas Rangers were in Toronto on Oct. 14, 2015 playing the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. This was the era of Marcus Stroman, Edwin Encarnación, Kevin Pillar, Josh Donaldson and Canadian-boy Russell Martin (her favourites were Martin, Encarnación and Donaldson).
The game was intense, with the Rangers leading early — until José Bautista came up to bat during the bottom of the seventh inning. Bautista cracked his bat and the ball flew into the stands — a three-run home run. We erupted in cheers, laughing and clapping. I jumped off the couch, which startled her. She scolded me for cheering so loudly.
Her love of baseball was impeccable.
Her concentration held up well through the years, until the last two years at home.
She started to lose interest in watching the news and doing word searches. It took her longer to read the Bible. She was slipping away, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to make things easier for her, but she shrugged it off.
I asked her many times if she wanted to watch the Blue Jays game, and she usually said no. If she did, she would frequently ask me what inning it was and who was winning. She eventually stopped watching TV altogether.
Sometimes she was her usual, social self — but it didn’t matter how many times I told her where her glasses were or what day it was — she wouldn’t remember.
Some days she didn’t come out of her room except to go to the bathroom.
I started to get lonely when she wasn’t sitting in her chair, reading the Bible, or telling me stories about when she milked the cows at four years old.
It’s hard to see someone you’ve known all your life deteriorate right before your eyes.
When she did come out, she would get angry more often.
Dementia is a mental illness that makes a person’s decision-making abilities worse. The World Health Organization said it’s more likely that a person’s decision-making abilities will weaken over time when they have dementia, and the ability to do everyday tasks will become harder to achieve.
One morning (I assume it was on a Saturday or Sunday because I slept in) I walked into the kitchen from my room and saw her waiting by the toaster. I told her good morning and looked in the fridge to get some milk for my cereal. She said an abrupt “morning.” I glanced at the counter and saw the vinegar bottle beside her plate. She grabbed her toast out of the toaster and started to pour the vinegar onto it.
That morning I realized she wasn’t coming back. She’d have to eventually go into a care home.
I couldn’t imagine what it would be like not having her at the farm.
Even though baba was allergic to cats, she had gotten used to my cats, Coco and Kitty, and would always pet Coco when she jumped on her lap. She would always tell me she wasn’t a fan of indoor pets. I would tell her that times have changed, and people on other farms have indoor pets. Baba would usually scoff at me.
But she depended on the cats. They were her eyes and ears. When my dad and I would go to Yorkton to get groceries, Baba stayed at home, with the cats of course. She didn’t know when we would come home, because she couldn’t hear.
There were many times where she was working in the garden, hacking away dandelions from the root — and she wouldn’t hear the car driving up.
Coco would run to the door when she heard it creak open, and that’s how Baba knew we were home. She’d usually be in the living room. Sometimes she wouldn’t notice the cats running out of the room and would get startled when I appeared.
In the spring, her health failed drastically. She became more paranoid — she thought that my dad and I were plotting against her. Delusions and hallucinations are common symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Delusions are false beliefs (what she was going through) and hallucinations are incorrect views of objects or events including the senses, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
The delusions got to the point where she wouldn’t eat. She was at her breaking point. The cats seemed to know something was up, especially Coco.
Baba would sit in the living room in silence — she wouldn’t talk to me or my dad. We would try to talk to her, but she couldn’t hear — so we raised our voices often.
Coco noticed something was wrong and would jump on her lap and “make bread.” Baba would uncover her face and pet Coco.
It made me happy to know she was comforted by someone. I could no longer provide that comfort to her — unless I made oatmeal cookies. She needed her cookies — and it didn’t matter what time of day she wanted them. They were a necessity for her.
Even though she was sick, she was still set in her ways and wanted to do the things she always did, such as making the cookies. She had to make sure the cookies were prepared the way she liked them.
I remember staying at home from work one day and talking to my dad about her future. He said that it’s the way things are — that’s life. I told him I wasn’t ready for her to leave yet.
I think my dad knew what I meant when I said “leave”.
There were a few times when she had a handful of mini strokes at home. I missed a few more days of work to help my dad. She wasn’t doing well, and we had to keep a close eye on her. Vascular dementia happens when the brain can’t get blood. If you don’t get oxygen, the brain cells will die. I’m not sure if this is what she had, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
As a result of Baba becoming unable to function on her own, we had a nurse come to the farm and assess her. We drove Baba to Saint Peter’s Hospital in Melville, where she ended up staying for a few months. Melville is a half hour drive from the farm. It’s not far but the drive felt like a few hours. I didn’t like the idea that she would leave my world soon, even though I knew she would.
The process of moving into the hospital was difficult — she took it hard. We all did. There are pros and cons for the caregiver and the person with dementia. The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences said in a report that caregiving can lessen the caregivers’ quality of life, which affects their health and financial states.
Since Baba had a sink in her room, she insisted on washing her clothes by hand. She also hoarded cups of water and cutlery (specifically spoons). She feared someone “getting” her.
While in hospital, her delicate frame became even more fragile. There were some days I would shudder when I hugged her. I could feel her spine and shoulder blades poking through her back.
There were times when she got angry when my dad was with her. He waited in the hallway while I visited her. Sometimes she wouldn’t let me in her room either.
Anointing of the Sick is one of the Seven Sacraments in the Catholic Church. One of the priests from Yorkton came to do this service for her. I remember she was upset, the lines in her aged face only became deeper with anger as she didn’t want my dad to be present. The priest convinced her to allow him to stay for the service. She turned away from us and asked the priest to make us leave numerous times. My dad eventually left.
Soon enough, we got a call from the Ituna Pioneer Lodge. She moved in June 2018.
She didn’t like the new atmosphere and would complain constantly about the door swinging open and how small the window and room were. She got used to it, eventually.
During the spring, I was accepted into Film Studies at the University of Winnipeg and Creative Communications at Red River College. I made up my mind and decided to go with college — and that meant I, a homebody, would be moving in a few months.
I reminded her that I would be moving in the summer and going back to school in August — only this time in Winnipeg. There were times where she would wrap her arms around me and lean her head on my shoulder. There were times where she would turn her lips downward and stare at the ground.
July 6, 2018 was my first moving day. I was still in awe that I was moving and going back to school. I never thought I’d make up my mind and figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was craving a new adventure.
Even though I’m happy with my studies, I still wish I’d never left.
We drove back to Ituna two days later, which happened to be my birthday. Baba was thrilled when I walked through the door, smiling and admiring my braid. I asked her what the date was. She didn’t remember.
I hoped that she would remember.
There were many more visits at the lodge during July and early August. Baba didn’t like the resident cat, Whiskers, coming into her room. She would always shoo him out and complain about him to my dad and me. She would stomp her foot and tell me to get Whiskers off her bed. I would gently lift Whiskers, put him in the hallway, and close the door.
Baba was sad the day before I left for Winnipeg. Her room was dark, with only the natural light coming in from the window. My tiger blanket was on her chair in the corner of the room, and beside her was a small table with a tin of oatmeal cookies on top. Her bedside table had three or four cups and mugs, scattered with a few spoons and forks from earlier meals. She huddled underneath her bedspread — a cream print with blue, red, and yellow flowers. She didn’t have much to say.
I moved to Winnipeg a week before college started. I wondered how I would make it through two years without being at the farm every day.
I would talk regularly to my dad during the fall and winter. I would ask how Baba was doing, and he would send me pictures of her — and I would send him selfies of me. When I had the time, I would talk to her on the phone. I loved hearing her voice.
I still long for those phone calls.
Those four months seemed like an eternity, and I was able to make it home for Christmas. I visited her as much as I could over the break, and some days were better than others.
One time I visited her in the late afternoon, and I decided to stay for supper. I helped her walk down the hallway and into the dining area, linked arm-in-arm with her by my side. I helped her sit down in her chair and grabbed one for myself.
I could tell she was getting mad at me during supper. I told her to eat some more of her salad, and she told me to leave her alone. Her face grew cold and her eyes became slanted. After we finished supper, I tried to take off her bib, but she scolded me and told me to leave it. I knew at this point I was digging myself into a hole, but I was still persistent. I took it off anyway and told her that she had another one on her bed. She got out of her chair and snatched it from the table. After we got back into her room, I said goodnight and left.
She came for a visit to the house once during the break, but she thought that she’d be staying there. We couldn’t take her to the farm after that.
After I left, she only got worse.
I had my last conversation with her in mid-February. I knew this phone call would be our last goodbye, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I went to the basement so my mom wouldn’t see me fall apart. I plugged my phone cord into the wall and lay on the floor. I patiently waited for my dad’s voice.
When he answered, I asked how she was doing and started to choke on my breath. He could probably tell I had already started to cry. I heard the phone muffle in his hands, as he held the phone to her face.
I could hear her breathing, and I cried harder. I could hear her barely say, “Hello.” I spoke through my desperate gasps for air. I told her how I was doing. I told her what I was doing in school. I told her that I wish I could’ve gone back home for the break, but I had homework to complete. I told her I missed her, more than anything. I told her I loved her.
Baba passed away the night of Feb. 17, 2019.
In a weird way, I believe that God made this happen. The way it seemed planned kind of shocked me.
She died over Reading Week, and I don’t think I could’ve handled her death if I was still in Ituna. I could barely handle it in Winnipeg.
To be honest, I couldn’t focus on anything — and I had a ton of homework to do. The day after she died, I met my group to film an assignment, and I didn’t tell anyone. I was afraid I might become hysterical and form into a human hurricane. I also had a screenplay due the week after that was based on her.
I completed the screenplay the night before it was due and was scared I would do terribly on it. But to my surprise, I received great feedback from everyone in the workshop — and I’m proud to say that it’s one of my best marks from my first year of college.
My family held the funeral a week later, so I, and other out-of-town family, would be able to attend. I’ve been to many funerals in my life, but this was one of the hardest. I couldn’t even compose myself to look at her. I didn’t want to believe her funeral was happening.
I’m still mad at myself for not being able to look in the casket for one final goodbye.
I’m certain that I got my stubbornness from her. She stuck to her values through thick and thin, and she didn’t care what anyone else thought. She had a knack for being creative. She crocheted several blankets for my sister and me, and she drew birds. She drew them on pieces of cardboard she cut out from cereal boxes.
I’m not sure why she loved birds so much. I wish I had asked her.
She also played the harmonica. I can hear her play her tune in my head right now.
I wish I’d asked her more questions before she passed away. I’m left with the memories I have of her.
She told me a lot of things, helpful advice, if you will. She told me she was happy that I was going back to school. She told me that she “only had a grade eight education.” She told me to save my money instead of spending it (I’m trying, Baba!). She told me to work hard. She told me to take care of myself. She told me not to buy ripped jeans.
She will stay with me forever.
If you or a loved one is experiencing dementia, you aren’t alone. Find support and resources for caregivers below.