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Author Martha Vowles with her father Alan Vowles and stepmother Joan Hartley at the couple's home in the Cushing area of Brownsburg-Chatham. Vowles; first book 'Senior Management: Parenting My Parents' describes the many challenges she faced in caring for the couple, who were determined to remain in their home despite numerous physical and memory issues.

Elderly Brownsburg-Chatham couple the inspiration for daughter’s first book

‘Senior Management: Parenting My Parents’ by Martha Vowles is a book which provides not only information on dealing with elderly parents, but also a snapshot of life in the Lachute-Brownsburg region.

The author, who lives in New Brunswick, details the challenges in caring for her elderly father and stepmother – a couple who many Argenteuil residents will recognize. Alan Vowles and his wife Joan Hartley spent most of their lives in Cushing. Alan worked at C.I.L. (now Orica) in Brownsburg, and later Manderly Sod in Alfred, before going to work for himself – running an upholstery business out of the couple’s home along the Ottawa River in the village.

“My dad grew up in Brownsburg and my mother, Audrey Watson (who passed away in 2000), grew up in Cushing,” recalls the author, whose future stepmother and her husband spent summers at their cottage in Cushing and were close friends of the family. “Maybe not today, but up until very recently almost anyone you would speak to in the area would know of them.”

Author attended LRHS

Alan and Audrey’s daughter, the book’s author Martha Vowles, grew up as the couple’s only child and attended Laurentian Regional High School, before leaving the area in 1977 to study at the University of New Brunswick. She has lived in Atlantic Canada ever since.

Martha discusses the loss of her mother in her writing, but for the most part the book focuses on the story of her father and stepmother, as they struggle with day to day tasks and refuse to accept the inevitable changes in their world.

‘Senior Management: Parenting My Parents’ tells in great detail the story of Alan and Joan, who married in 2002. Even at the age of 81 Martha’s father was still a strapping, healthy man – his 79-year-old bride radiant and beautiful as they took their vows in front of a group of supportive friends and family. Martha observes in her writing that the wedding was a harbinger of times to come, noting the minister – a friend of the bride and groom – “went on at length about how wonderful it was to be back among his old friends in Placentia – that’s a small town in Newfoundland about four thousand kilometres from Cushing, Quebec.”

The author first began to notice a mental decline in her father and stepmother in 2007, during a pre-Christmas visit to the couple’s Cushing home. On a trip into Lachute to run errands, Martha went to find a bank machine and was to meet her parents back in front of the drug store where they had parked. She emerged to find them driving away without her.

“As I neared the drug store, I saw their green Subaru station wagon pull out of the parking lot and turn away from me up Main Street,” Martha writes. “I watched the car stop at the red light and drive on. There was no question. They were leaving town. I could only hope when they got home, they’d stumble on my suitcase in the hallway and remember I was supposed to be with them.”

“I didn’t want to accept what I was seeing”

The experience was an eye-opener for Vowles, who says a sudden realization of the seriousness of the situation is not uncommon for people whose aging parents are in mental decline.

“It seems like everybody has a moment of clarity, when it just comes home to them that something is very wrong,” Vowles explains. “(I started) realizing that they had been doing some rather peculiar things for the past little while.”

“I guess I just didn’t want to accept what I was seeing.”

From that day in the middle of Lachute’s Main Street onward, the author outlines the many long-distance calls, visits, meetings with hospital staff and caregivers, and heartbreaking moments which occurred over the next decade. There are tales of determination which will illicit a chuckle from any reader – many of which involve Alan’s driving habits – including a night horror trip to the Willow Inn in Hudson, which left the author and her husband vowing to never ride as passengers with her father again. The book also details experiences – both good and bad – with local agencies, including the Lachute and Hawkesbury hospitals.

“I kept a journal all through the experience, especially towards the end,” Vowles says. “I would write posts to my friends on Facebook and I would get their reactions to little snippets that I would write about my dad and stepmom.”

While there were some issues, Vowles says agencies in the area were overall extremely supportive. She thanks a number of local doctors, nurses and caregivers in her book for the care they provided to her parents, as well as her cousin Gerald Vowles, who lives in Vankleek Hill and was able to keep a close eye on the couple.

Alan passed away in 2014, two years before Joan. It was not until a few years later that Vowles decided to try to compose her memories into book form. She says she wrote the book not only as a tool for others in the same situation, but because the experience left many fond memories for both her and her husband, despite the circumstances.

“When the whole episode of our lives was over, we said ‘you know there are a lot of good stories in this and a lot of people will probably be able to relate to them’,” Vowles says. “A lot of people are living through this and I just thought I had a good story to tell and I could tell it well – that was really the motivation for me to write the book.”

Make preparations for aging

Vowles notes she does not try to give advice in her writing. She merely tells the tale as it happened.

“It’s not a how-to by any means, because that’s been done already and it’s been done very capably by other people,” the author explains, adding she hopes her book will influence others to think about the long-term care of their parents, and even themselves. “Perhaps it will spark them to think about their own parents’ needs and think about making preparations for their own aging.”

Alan and Joan were in many ways prepared – having even arranged power of attorney for Martha if the need ever arose – but they were blind to the inevitability of their own mental and physical decline.

“The thing they hadn’t prepared for – at all – was diminishing capability, and accommodation,” Vowles sighs. “They were determined they were going to stay in their sprawling 3,000-square-foot home on the river indefinitely.”

“They really hadn’t thought about ‘what do we do next and is this really sustainable?’.”

Time heals all wounds

The decline of her father and stepmother dominated the author’s thoughts as she cared for them, and for a good period after they passed, but as time goes by Vowles says her memories of Alan, Joan, and her own mother are mostly of happier times, when all were still young and had their whole lives ahead of them.

“In the immediate period after Joan passed away and that chapter had come to an end, my thoughts and memories were dominated by that period of about seven years in which they were declining,” Vowles says, her thoughts turning to her father’s strength and determination. “His independence and his ability to do just about anything he decided to try – I just remember how capable he was.”

‘Senior Management: Parenting My Parents’ is published by Nevermore Press and is available for purchase through The Review’s online gift shop https://reviewshop.ca/shop/senior-management/.

Reid Masson

Reid Masson is a graduate of Algonquin College's Journalism Program. He has over 20 years of experience as a staff writer and editor for various newspapers across Canada, including The Ottawa Citizen and Brockville Recorder and Times.

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