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Bonners Ferry author writes about sharing her mother's journey through dementia

Courtesy of Carolyn Birrell
"Walking with Fay" was published on Mother's Day.

Carolyn Birrell says she needed to share her story with others who are following similar paths.

For years, Bonners Ferry, Idaho resident Carolyn Birrell had a problem many adults with ailing parents wrestle with. Her mother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. That’s a difficult enough situation to deal with. But in Birrell’s case, she lived in north Idaho and her mother lived in north Georgia.

The ensuing tale is both entertaining and terrifying and Birrell has written about it. Her new book, “Walking With Fay,” was published yesterday [on Mother’s Day].

“Right around 2012 I’d gotten my phone call from the sheriff in her town, letting me know that she driving on the wrong side of the road and people were calling in to report her," she remembers.

Up until then, Birrell said she had noticed some changes in her mother, but chalked them up to getting older and a quirky personality. Birrell would periodically fly cross country and visit, but that call from the sheriff convinced her she needed to do more.

Doug: “You decided to move her to north Idaho with you. How did that work out?”

Carolyn Birrell: “It didn’t work out well at all. It took years of me calling her, come on out. I’ll find you a little house right up the street.”

Fay had lots of reasons why she didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to leave her garden and her church and her friends.

Carolyn Birrell: “I brought her out for a trip. We spent a week, two weeks here and I surprised her with one of her living sisters. I flew her out with us. We had a great time, but I still couldn’t convince her to move here.”

Her mother’s situation continued to deteriorate and Birrell and her sister decided Fay could no longer live alone. So, the two of them met at Fay’s house to begin the process of moving her to north Idaho.

Carolyn Birrell: “Her [sister's] main way of helping was to come down to Georgia and distract my mother by bringing her up to New York for two weeks while we emptied her house, got it sold. We drove her possessions back to Idaho and then got them on a plane from upstate New York to Idaho.”

Courtesy of Carolyn Birrell
Bonners Ferry author Carolyn Birrell

From then on, it was Carolyn Birrell’s job to care for Fay. They found a little house for her to live in.

Doug: “She moves in. How do things go from there?”

Carolyn Birrell: “Everything fell apart. Within five or six short months, it became very obvious that I couldn’t do this on my own. I had no idea she was as far along as she was and every escapade that happened was what I wrote down and wasn’t prepared for. I started looking for help in the form of other books that might tell me what I could expect next. Was I normal? Were my reactions justified? I felt like the worst daughter.”

Doug: “And you live in rural north Idaho where, I’m guessing, you probably weren’t able to find a lot in the way of community help. Is that true?”

Carolyn Birrell: “Bonners Ferry has a population of 2,500 people and I swear, they became my village. My neighbors surrounding her constantly checked in on me, sent me texts when Mom went out walking. The title of my book is “Walking with Fay” because that was what Fay did. She walked and I would get texts off and on in the day saying, ‘Fay’s walking down the hill.’ ‘I just saw Fay on Main Street.’ ‘Fay’s in the grocery store.’ It was one of my ways of keeping track of her when I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep track of her. I had my busy day and I was checking in on her three times a day and then I had my community surrounding me. I had even the police every once in a while would stop me and say, ‘I saw your mother. She’s over here on Madison Street.’ It was an amazing time of support.”

In early 2020, at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, Fay suffered a stroke. Birrell, at the time, had flown home from a trip to Florida when she got the call. Her mother was in a hospital at a time of lockdown.

Carolyn Birrell: “They had made a special allowance for me to see her and put her in her own quarantined room but as I was getting ready to leave, they told me I couldn’t come back and I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Fay’s health deteriorated.

Carolyn Birrell: “The final call from the doctor, they let me come in one more time and again told me upon entering the room that I wouldn’t be able to leave. So at that point, I didn’t leave her room. But I did get to spend the next 72 hours with my mother and be with her when she left.”

Doug: “So is it therapeutic for you to write about it?”

Carolyn Birrell: “I didn’t realize how therapeutic this was going to be. This wasn’t my point. I didn’t feel like I needed that. What I needed was to share this because I looked so many places for this story and I just felt at such a loss so many times. I didn’t really know who to talk to, where to go for help from somebody who was going through this. So I had this strong need to share this with others if only to give them one little chance to change their attitude about it when it’s happening to them.”

Carolyn Birrell is the author of the newly-published book, “Walking with Fay: My mother’s uncharted path into dementia.” She lives in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Carolyn Birrell extra.mp3

We have a few more minutes of our interview with Birrell, including an interesting revelation.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.