Making the most of the ‘new normal’

John Connell has gone from sitting on the couch sleeping his way through his dementia journey to having a good time with a whole new circle of friends!

Julia Connell says she can’t believe the difference in her husband since he’s returned to the social connections group at Forest Hill AgeWell Centre after it reopened following the COVID lockdowns.

Julia is speaking out during Dementia Action Week about how John transformed from a couch potato who used to doze off during the day watching television, to being a cheerful, thoroughly sociable person. “It wasn’t much of a life for him,” she says.

Now the 81-year-old retired carpenter and insurance assessor attends the centre four times a week from 10am-2pm and has a wonderful time enjoying tea and lunch and doing activities. “He seems to have found a new energy! He always comes home and says what fun he had, even though he can’t remember what he did,” explains Julia.

John, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, says, “The best thing about coming here is all the friends I have made.”

And 79-year-old Julia uses these breaks to do her regular water aerobics at the local swimming pool, catch up with her friends, go out to lunches or see movies and to generally recharge her batteries. She admits that being a carer is tough, even though John has personal care at home to help out.

John has been living with dementia for almost ten years. Julia says the changes were gradual at first. He would forget things, and keep on repeating sentences. He could remember his childhood but not what he had for lunch. The hardest part for John was losing his driver’s license. “He used to love driving, but he accepted that it would be me in the driver’s seat from now on.”

The couple has been married for 58 years, have four very supportive children and 13 grandchildren, and are devoted to each other. Julia explains: “Every single night, without fail, John says ‘I love you, I appreciate what you do for me and thank you for a lovely day’ – no matter what we’ve done that day! He also keeps on asking me during the day ‘is everything OK?’ and ‘is there anything I can do for you?’ I know that he wouldn’t be able to really help out with things around the house, but it is nice to know that he is concerned about me.”

Still, Julia has had to come to terms with the “new normal” in their lives. “John watches music on TV and is fanatical about watching the news on a number of channels from 4pm onwards. He’ll pass comments, but can’t remember what he has seen a few minutes later. He goes to bed at 9pm and always wants me to turn in at the same time. If I want to carry on watching TV or reading, he’ll come back to the lounge every 30 minutes or so, asking when I’m going to bed!”

They also go for weekend trips around Victoria, recently going to Marysville and Healesville. “He loves it,” says Julia. “The doctor has advised us not to travel overseas or anything, we need to be close to home in case anything happens.”

Julia is hugely grateful to Uniting AgeWell for turning John from a “couch potato” to a cheerful, thoroughly sociable person. “He’s very popular there, lots of people call him Johnny, and because he’s quick-witted he’s often quite the life of the party!”

Julia, who retired in 2011 after managing a bakery, started work at Uniting AgeWelll’s Strathdon Community in Forest Hill as a Food Services Assistant. She worked there for four years doing the 3pm-7pm shift, but gave it up when she could no longer leave John on his own at home.

What she has witnessed though, is the level of care and the dedication of the staff, and she would have no hesitation in John moving into Strathdon should he need greater levels of care than can be provided at home.

Find out more about Uniting AgeWell’s approach to Dementia Care