Twenty-five years ago, armed with her newly minted degree in psychology, Heather Cooke answered a newspaper ad for home support workers.
In this role, she met Mrs. Brown, a woman living with dementia in the community who would change the course of Cooke’s career. While Cooke’s coursework touched on dementia, she’d never actually met someone living with the disease before and was intrigued by the realities of it, often finding Mrs. Brown’s iron in the fridge, her mail stashed away in the cutlery drawer or Mrs. Brown reading a book upside down.
“The many challenges Mrs. Brown and her husband faced highlighted the need for supports that both gave someone living with dementia independence and alleviated the stress of caring for someone around the clock in the community,” Cooke says.
“Not only did Mr. Brown need an opportunity for brief reprieves from his role as a caregiver, but Mrs. Brown needed to feel like she still had a place in the world.”
Inspired to learn more about the disease, Cooke began studying gerontology at Simon Fraser University and after relocating to the Okanagan, took a position as an activity aide on a dementia care unit.
She reached out to the local office of the Alzheimer Society of B.C. and, along with facilitating a caregiver support group, began co-facilitating a support group for people with early-stage dementia, the first of its kind in B.C.
Reflecting on how to best make a difference in the lives of people living with dementia and those who care for them, she ultimately returned to school, completing her master’s degree and then her PhD.
“I thought I would return to long-term care as an administrator, but I just fell in love with doing the research and thought maybe this is how I make a difference,” she says.
While completing her doctoral research on long-term care environments, Cooke witnessed a staff member verbally abusing a resident living with dementia. Another staff member also witnessed the episode but was reluctant to report it for fear of retaliation from her colleague.
Cooke was spurred to research workplace relationships of front-line staff in care homes to better understand how bullying and incivility affects the physical and mental well-being of staff and residents.
Out of this research she put together “Civility Matters: An Online Toolkit for Long-Term Care Staff,” a practical guide for care home staff, which will be released Feb. 22, the same day Cooke will take the stage at the Alzheimer Society of B.C.’s annual Breakfast to Remember fundraiser in Kelowna.
At the event, she’ll share insights from her career supporting people living with dementia and their caregivers, in both a front-line and research capacity. The event is an opportunity for business, health-care and community leaders to help change the experience of people affected by dementia, as well as the future of the disease, by funding the society’s education, support services and research.
Cooke went on to become an adjunct professor at both the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing and Simon Fraser University’s Department of Gerontology. In her current role as provincial coordinator of knowledge mobilization for the Alzheimer Society of B.C., she draws on her research background to support the creation and sharing of research in ways that are meaningful for people with lived experience, policy makers and practitioners.
“I love my job,” she says. “Every day, I sit down at my desk knowing I’m continuing to make a difference in the lives of individuals living with dementia and those who care for them.”
Join Cooke and help change the future for people affected by dementia at the Breakfast to Remember. People in the Okanagan will have the opportunity to learn directly from her at the breakfast in Kelowna from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Feb. 22 at the Coast Capri Hotel, 1171 Harvey Ave.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit BreakfastToRemember.ca.
This article is written by or on behalf of the sponsoring client and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.