New Bendigo carers support group for those looking after people with dementia

Joyce Watts’s day starts at 6am. She gets up and ready, and enjoys a cup of coffee on her own before her work begins.

Mrs Watts is a full-time carer to her husband of 53 years, Richard.

Thirteen years ago, Mr Watts was diagnosed with vascular dementia. It started with memory loss, but over the years, Mr Watts’s physical abilities have also been affected.

“He’s slowly deteriorating, which happens with dementia,” Mrs Watts said.

“He realises what’s happening to a point but he doesn’t really understand why it’s happening or what’s going to happen. He just knows how it is in the present.”

When her husband was first diagnosed with dementia, Mrs Watts continued working at the family business, the IGA in Huntly, but after 12 months of juggling both, it became too much.

“I couldn’t do both, it was just too hard,” she said, with the couple ending up selling the business.

“I think it took me about two years to get used to not working. It was a real shock to the system because I enjoyed work.”

Mr Watts now uses a wheelchair unless he is inside their Epsom home, and needs help from his wife for daily tasks like showering, going to the toilet and getting dressed.

“I’m very fortunate because Richard is placid. He never gets angry, he never gets aggressive, sometimes he’ll get short with me, but not very often,” Mrs Watts said.

“He’s great to look after, and he’s got a real sense of humor.”

But it can be a stressful job.

“As he deteriorates, I have to come to terms with it and that can be hard,” Mrs Watts said.

“You don’t know why it’s happening, but it just happens and there’s nothing you can jolly well do about it.”

After Mrs Watts got sick herself with a bacterial infection, she began investigating options for more help.

It was only then she realised that all the information she had gathered previously was out of date.

“Occasionally I’ll meet someone else, just by chance, who’s caring for someone, and they get support that I don’t even know about,” she said.

“And this is why a support group to me would be very very important.”

Mrs Watts is hoping a new carer support group run by Uniting AgeWell in 2018 will not only help fill this need, but also be able to connect her to other carers facing similar situations, and to help her understand the disease better.

“If you can have these support groups where all this information is coming through, you’re up with it. You know what’s there,” she said.

“There’s a lot of help out there that I don’t know about.”

Uniting AgeWell will begin sessions in February for its You're Not Alone - Carer Support Group and program co-ordinator Kerry Egan said it would be the only one of its kind in the area.

“It is estimated over 6000 people in the Loddon Mallee region are living with dementia,” she said. 

“This dementia-specific carer support group will provide carers with the supports, practical strategies and networks they need to maintain their emotional health and well-being and enable them to continue to care for the person with dementia so that person can continue living at home.”

The carers support group received a boost in late 2017, with $10,000 in funding from the State Trustees Australia Foundation grassroots grant program

“The overarching aim is to reduce levels of carer stress and provide the framework for self-facilitated carer support groups,” Ms Egan said.

The support group will cover the Loddon Mallee south area, particularly the Bendigo region, and will be facilitated from Uniting AgeWell’s Seven Hills Respite House and Strath-Haven Community, Bendigo.