Technology like FaceTime and Zoom has made keeping in contact with whānau easier during Covid-19, but when your family members are living with dementia, it adds a new level of challenge.

For Vivienne Wilson, a Kawerau-based counsellor, keeping a close eye on her pāpā Hemi James Wirihana has been part of her life since his diagnosis of dementia in 2012. Hemi, Vivienne says, has always been the rangatira/leader of the whānau. “He was the one no-one went to tangi without… he was it for our whānau, really.” The decision to put him in a rest home did not come easily for Vivienne, particularly, she says, as it’s not the Māori thing to do. But Hemi was becoming a danger to himself; leaving the gas on, getting into car accidents, leaving his house and getting lost. “Being raised in the te ao Māori world, my pāpā always said the most important thing was the people,” Vivienne says. “I remembered that kōrero he had with me and I thought, ‘I need to do what’s best for my whānau as a whole.’” The peace of mind that her father was in good care, where he would be safe, was what mattered the most.

Vivienne was thrilled to bring her dad home to the Bay of Plenty, where he could not only be closer to whānau, but he would also be able to speak te reo. “I knew it would be important to have those conversations with his whānau, even if he didn’t remember them.” Her father become settled with the support of Vivienne and her sister Nikki staying with him for the first two weeks, to help ease that process. He was in good hands, and close to home.

But Covid-19 has, of course, changed everything. Under both level 4 and level 3, Vivienne and her whānau are unable to visit Hemi because of the heightened immunity risks being elderly brings. Because of the nature of dementia, where moments of memory and clarity can be few and far between, phone calls between Hemi and his whānau are virtually impossible - dementia means a person can be fine one minute, then confused, angry or scared the next. It’s distressing for everyone involved – the person, the family member, and in the case of Hemi the rest home staff as well. This can put whānau in a very difficult position – your instinct is to check in with your loved ones during such a difficult time, but it can do more harm than good.

For Vivienne, managing this stress has come down to knowing what is in her control, and what is outside of it. She’s in constant contact with the team at the rest home, and has worked out enough Plan B’s, if things do go wrong, that’s she’s able to have some peace of mind. Not being able to see elderly family members is hard for a lot of us, she says. “But if they’re in the best place they can be, then it’s up to whānau to keep themselves well for that whānau member that’s in a rest home.”

In Vivienne’s bubble, that means daily exercise – including a daily TikTok with her daughter and daughter’s partner, and getting out into nature by walking along the beautiful Tarawera river. It also means keeping in contact with her community – every single day, she rings a different friend or whānau member. And then, for her spiritual health, she’s lucky enough to have two uncles who offer daily karakia via Facebook – one in the morning, and the other in the evening. On the other side of Covid-19, she’ll be able to reunite with her beloved pāpā after taking care of herself and the bubble around her.