Tuesday, 19 June 2018


Two weeks ago, my husband Jim and I drove a couple of hours west from our house into the countryside where we pulled into the driveway of an old, red brick farmhouse. We were greeted by a symphony of barking. In a few minutes, we would be introduced to the newest member of our family - a golden retriever puppy. Meet our Daisy! 

We are in the thick of puppy heaven, so naturally I began to think about the role of pets in caregiving. I did a bit of online research and discovered a wonderful charity that's active in the USA and Canada called Pet Partners. I decided to get in touch and ask them some questions about how pets can foster wellbeing in patients and their caring families. Here's what I learned. 

What are the services that you offer to patients and families who would benefit from Pet Partners? 

We encourage individuals seeking therapy animal visits to work with a healthcare provider to see about setting up therapy animal visits. For insurance and liability reasons, visits from Pet Partners therapy animal teams must be coordinated through a care organization, with a staff member for the coordinating organization present during the visit. We have a section of our website where care organizations can request volunteer team visits: https://petpartners.org/learn/pet-partners-at-your-facility/add-a-volunteer-opportunity/ NOTE: Call your nursing provider or seniors center and ask them to request a visit from a Pet Partners therapy animal if you think it would be good for your family.

Do you offer home visits or only institutional visits? 

At present, home visits are possible, but they must meet the guidelines described in the paragraph above. The teams making home visits we know of currently are doing so through hospice or home health agencies. We hope that we might be able to offer more direct coordination of home visits in the future.

Does your Walk With Me program offer walking with pets and seniors in their neighborhoods? 

For the liability reasons mentioned above, we recommend that all visits, including Walk With Me visits, be coordinated with a care organization. However, as we expand the Walk With Me initiative, we hope to resolve these issues and make this initiative something that can be offered on a more informal community basis.

Is there anything else I should tell family caregivers about Pet Partners?

Therapy animal visits can offer measurable health benefits both for people dealing with health issues and for caregivers. While research shows that the presence of an animal, including a family pet, can be beneficial in many circumstances, Pet Partners therapy animal teams come with education, screening, and registration that confirms their suitability to provide animal-assisted interventions safely, and liability insurance to reduce risk. More information on the research underlying the benefits of the human-animal bond is available HERE

Pet Partners is the largest therapy animal organization in the United States (it's in Canada too!) registering therapy animal teams (a team is one human handler and one animal) to provide animal-assisted interventions. We register nine different types of animals: dogs, cats, equines (horses, ponies, and donkeys), rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, birds (primarily in the parrot family), miniature pigs, and camelids (llamas and alpacas). We are currently the only national therapy animal organization to register many of these species. Our volunteer therapy animal teams make over three million visits each year, offering the benefits of the human-animal bond to people in a variety of healthcare and therapeutic settings, as well as our Read With Me initiative promoting childhood literacy, and our Walk With Me initiative promoting movement for health. We are also expanding our program internationally. 

I am already benefitting from the joys and mental health benefits of being with Daisy. She makes me laugh and I'm sure lowers my blood pressure. I've also met many of my neighbors. I can attest to the fact that puppies are an antidote to social isolation and grumpy dispositions! They are always friendly and they're always in a happy mood. 

If you or your loved one don't want the responsibility of pet ownership, but would enjoy an animal visit occasionally, consider asking to 'babysit' a neighbour's cat or well behaved dog for an hour once a week. Being with our furry friends is good for the soul. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018



1) Are a Dad
2) Are a Dad of children with Disabilities
3) Are a son caring for your parents or grandparents
4) Are a Dad whose son or daughter is caring for you
5) Are a Dad whose wife is caring for you
6) Are a single Mom who does double duty as a Dad


According to Dr. Gail Gross who writes for the Huffington Post, it is impossible to over-estimate the importance of dads. For example, girls who have good relationships with their fathers tend to do better in math, and boys who have actively involved fathers tend to have better grades and perform better on achievement tests. And well-bonded boys develop securely with a stable and sustained sense of self. Who we are and who we are to be, we are becoming, and fathers are central to that outcome.

 Research indicates that fathers are as important as mothers in their respective roles as caregivers, protectors, financial supporters, and most importantly, models for social and emotional behaviour. In fact, a relatively new structure that has emerged in our culture is the stay-at-home dad. 

Today, a new report on dads and caregiving was released, just in time for Father's Day. Apparently men want to do more caring, but can't because of work and stigma. Insufficient paid leave and the worry about others' perceptions if they prioritize caring over work were the barriers to caring more. 

There are many pressures on families today. I hope that future generations will prioritize caring over work and I hope that fathers will continue to be supported in their critical role as nurturers. Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, 7 June 2018


Ask someone who cares for a loved one, "How are you?" Chances are, they'll answer "I'm fine", but if they were being completely honest, they'd probably confess, "I'm exhausted." And that's a scary, dangerous truth. It's dangerous because sleep deprivation has the same effects as being drunk. 

No wonder I lost my car insurance in 2004. They said I'd had too many minor accidents. It was the worst year of our lives. Nicholas' unrelenting pain caused him to wake every half hour. He needed us to reposition him for comfort on top of managing medications, seizures and tube feeds. No one was hurt in my long list of fender benders, but when I read a study showing that 100,000 crashes are caused by fatigued drivers, I felt plain lucky because I was one of them. It could have been so much worse.

But driving isn't the only important responsibility that is impaired by exhaustion. Caregivers have medications to give, food to prepare, bills to pay and care to coordinate. Sometimes we need to physically lift our loved one. These are tasks that could go seriously wrong, causing bodily harm and even death to the person in our care. Exhaustion is no joke.

I remember telling my doctor that I was worried about myself. I worried that I would make a medication error or that I would fall asleep behind the wheel with the children in their seats behind me. He didn't have any answers. There are no magic bullets for fatigue when caring for someone whose needs are 24/7.

The only thing I can suggest to fellow carers is to arrange respite if and when possible. And say 'yes' to every single offer of help. If you're lucky and can get a nap during the day, leave the dishes and go lie down. Do it for safety's sake. Slow down in the car and double check the medications. For tired caregivers, that's the best we can do.

Friday, 1 June 2018


I've been thinking a lot about feet lately. Not my feet so much, but my Mom's feet and our son's feet. Mom needs new shoes. The shape of her foot has changed over the years and her GP has prescribed shoes with a 'wider toe box' in order to prevent chafing. Actually, I have been thinking a bit about my own feet because I notice that I have the same structural changes starting in my right foot. We are family.

And I've been thinking about Nick's feet too because just yesterday we decided to engage the services of a foot care specialist for him. It's time someone took a look at his nails and the skin on his feet as part of his regular care plan. It's a free service through our community health authority, so why not take advantage of it?

Here's what I've tried (that hasn't worked with my Mom) and what I've learned about specialty shoe stores and brands.

  • It's a bad idea to order specialty shoes online unless you know exactly which brand and what size will work. I tried ordering a pair of Naturalizers in my Mom's size but in a wide width. Didn't work. The top of the shoe still rubbed on the top of her foot and I had to pay postage to return them.
  • It's a good idea to locate a specialist shoe shop and speak to them on the phone. I rang up Foot Solutions in Montreal and got all kinds of great advice including the name brands that would be suitable. That way, Mom and I could shop online for style which cuts down on the time needed in the shop.
  • For older adults, it's absolutely crucial that there be a strap around the back of the heel and no narrow heels (my Mom loves style, but we have to compromise a bit to find shoes that will give her the most support in walking).
We've been looking for the right shoes for my Mom for weeks now and haven't found them yet, but I know we're close. On the next shopping trip, we'll know where to go and what brands to look at. 

Here's what I learned about general foot care when I was researching for Nick:
  • There's a difference between a chiropodist and a podiatrist. A chiropodist is a foot care practitioner and a podiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in feet and ankles. Here's a list of what chiropodists do for their patients (they can be visited in local chiropody clinics or they can make home visits): 
  • They will check the condition of your skin on the top and bottom of your feet and toe nails
  • Check the circulation within your feet, by assessing both temperature and pulses
  • Check the feeling in your feet, for example by using a monofilament tool or tuning fork
  • Assess the shape and structure of your feet
  • Look for corns, calluses, hammer toes and other foot conditions
  • Inspect your footwear; badly fitting or inappropriate footwear can cause serious problems
  • Answer any questions you may have about your feet, or tell you where you can have your questions answered.
Sounds like chiropodists are just what the doctor ordered!

Thursday, 31 May 2018

My Google Nightmare

It's funny what keeps me awake at night. Of course, health issues in my family are a recipe for insomnia, but over the past two weeks, something else has been driving me crazy.

My website, this blog, crashed. Well, it didn't crash, but I and everyone else was locked out. Why? Because I couldn't pay $10 to renew the domain name of donnathomson.com. I couldn't pay for all sorts of boring reasons, but chief among them is that I have moved twice in the last couple of years, changed phone numbers and my VISA card changed its expiration date (and of course billing address). Add to that, this blogging platform changed the way it manages custom domain names. I was so upset that I said to my husband, "I feel like squatters have taken over our beloved home and locked us out. They say we don't own our home anymore and apparently they are right." A lot of my life's work is in this blog and I couldn't access it. It wasn't life threatening, but it felt pretty awful.

I spent upwards of one hundred hours trying to solve the problem with various Google support sites. One person, Peggy, was very kind but couldn't help. Others, I'm pretty sure, were bots. At least they didn't behave like humans. Nothing worked to convince Google that I am me and the owner of my site. It was, as they say, 'Kafka-esque'.

Family always comes to the rescue and this time, my knight in shining armour was our daughter's partner Alex, who happens to be a computer programmer. I have no idea what he did, but my website is back and the damned $10 is paid at least until my current VISA card expires or I move again. Actually, scratch that. Alex has offered to quarterback any future tech problems with my site. He is my friend forever. Now I can sleep again, write new blog posts and keep working on my new book without the distraction of shattered nerves. Ahhh. I'm back home and I feel better.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


Yesterday I had a massage. I needed it because for about a week now, I was grumpy from feeling rickety. A searing ache in my lower back meant that climbing stairs was a slow process and lifting my left leg to slide into the driver's seat hurt like the blazes.

It wasn't always like this.  For years, I lifted Nicholas.... right up until he was 18 and nearly six feet tall. "Hey Nick", I'd say, "You are my personal trainer!  No osteoporosis for me - I'm as strong as a WWE wrestler.  I kick butt!"  And we would both giggle at my ridiculous effort to imitate his wrestling superstars.

Regrets?  I have a few.  One of them is lifting Nicholas so long without bothering to use a lifting device.  We eventually had a ceiling track installed, but it was always so much quicker just to lift Nick myself instead of bothering with the sling.  Now, I am paying the price for thinking that I was immune from the wear and tear of repetitive strain. 

So, this week, on doctor's orders, I had a massage.  Karina, the massage therapist has the build of a long -distance swimmer and the manner of a zen healer. Karina's clinic is called Metta. I asked Karina about the meaning of the word and she explained that it is a Buddhist practice of meditation.  "Umm humm," I was relaxed, listening intently at this point.  "Anyone can practice Metta", she said.  "It involves the contemplation of loving kindness - the sort that you feel for your new baby. You begin by directing all that loving kindness to yourself, as if you are the baby.  You meditate to fill yourself up with loving kindness.  That way, you are ready to begin giving it to others."  "Ohhh", I thought. 

Here is how the Wikipedia explains the Metta practice:

The cultivation of loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) is a popular form of meditation in Buddhism. In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, this practice begins with the meditator cultivating loving-kindness towards themselves,[7] then one's loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this practice is associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out ("sends") happiness and breathes in ("receives") suffering.[8] Tibetan Buddhists also practice contemplation of the Brahmavihāras, also called the four immeasurables, which is sometimes called 'compassion meditation'[9]
So, last night, I didn't sleep well. That's usual for me - the effects of my age combine with the heightening of everyday worries in the early hours. So I thought of Metta.  I began to breath deeply and slowly.  I thought of myself as my own precious baby.  My thoughts kept straying to tasks, events, past transgressions.  But I will try again.  This Metta is a very good thing for caregivers.  Perhaps Buddha himself was a caregiver. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


I am delighted to host this guest post by Dr. Yona Lunsky. Dr. Lunsky is a Clinician-Scientist in Adult Neurodevelopmental Services and Director of the Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities (H-CARDD) Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She's also a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Yona is all those things, but she is also a sibling of a beloved sister who has developmental disabilities and she is a daughter. This is Yona's Mother's Day reflection on her own family and on the role of disability Moms everywhere. 

Through my work over the past several years, I have had the honour of getting to know many mothers of youth and adults with developmental disabilities. I hope we can celebrate these mothers this mother’s day, for their creativity, passion, persistence, and wisdom as well as for the love that they give to their sons and daughters with disabilities. But in this blog, I would like to celebrate my own mom, and by doing so, celebrate mothers like her, who helped to create the fertile ground for moms of today to further push the envelope and lead to change. 
My mom would not describe herself as a leader or an expert. But as a mother of 4, including my older sister, who is turning 50 with a developmental disability, my mother has been both. When my sister’s disability was diagnosed before the age of 2, my mother was advised to place her into institutional care  but she did not listen to that advice. My sister remained at home. My mother found programs when she could, and when she couldn’t find them, she made them.
My mom was convinced that my sister could learn more from children without disabilities if only she could spend more time with them. And it didn’t make sense that she should spend a big part of her day traveling to a special school when she had a program right in our neighbourhood. It was a pretty strange idea at the time, but my mom convinced another mother, who was also the school kindergarten teacher,  that maybe my sister could spend some time in this classroom setting with children a bit younger than her,  for a few hours each day.
My sister’s first segregated class experience in elementary school was a difficult one. Her teacher did not understand her needs, and did not seem particularly open to change. At that time, many parents would have been grateful to have a program at all and would have left it at that. It was difficult to speak up before we had special education advisories and parent advocacy groups. But my mom advocated to find a different program for her, where the teacher was ready to listen to my mom and work as part of a team, before this was commonplace. In the new school, my mom volunteered in the classroom once a week, which the teacher allowed and appreciated, and which also helped my mom to learn what was happening in the classroom, so she could better help my sister at home.
My sister continued in segregated special education classes until graduation from high school when she was 21. But my mom was thinking about ways to prepare her for what happens after that time, and she pushed the boundaries again to create programs when there were none. What if there could be funding for an assistant to support my sister in a few regular classes? Could she spend time with her peers who did not have disabilities? Could my sister get some time outside of the classroom to learn work skills with the support of an aid? This was not standard at the time. In fact, it was just a pilot, to see if it could work. But people were willing to try and my sister had both some inclusive education at her public high school, and she was able to develop work skills in a co-op placement, just like students without disabilities.
My mom understood that my sister needed more than what she could be offered during the school day and so she helped to start several programs for my sister and other kids at our local jewish community centre.  Eventually there were several evening programs, weekend activities, and a summer camp, which ran along side the summer camp for kids without disabilities, and sometimes my sister joined me in the activities  I was doing. It meant that there was a single drop off and pick up so more activities for each of us. Even though I was never able to go to the same school as my sister, when it came to what we did for fun, we got to do these things together. 
One of my sister’s favourite activities was day camp. She loved the songs and the dances, the cheers, and the competitions. What if she could be a counselor in training? My mom approached a local summer camp which has begun to include younger children with disabilities in their regular program. My sister was too old to be an integrated camper, but would they be willing to integrate a staff? It fit with their mandate of including kids with disabilities as campers and could model to kids and families that people with disabilities were valuable staff members as well. Somehow, my mom’s creativity won out again. My sister worked at that camp for many  years and earned a plaque recognizing her as an honorary life staff member. Staff supported her to do her job at camp and they also included her in evening social activities outside of camp. Since that time, many other individuals have transitioned from a camper to staff role, thanks to my sister and my mom, her advocate.
When my sister was diagnosed, there were no online resources or Facebook groups. You were on your own. Initially, my mother found some informal parent to parent support through the programs she participated in. She met a few other mothers in similar situations at a nearby church which held a nursery program.  And on Saturdays, she started to get to know some mothers of daughters in the change room at adapted swimming lessons. Swimming was not just a drop off program because all the kids who went needed their parents in the change room to get them ready and the lesson itself wasn’t that long, so they waited around during the class. This little bit of time with other mothers was helpful (at this time it was mainly mothers and not fathers who were involved in these activities) but no one had much free time  How else could parents spend time together and learn from one another?
My mom started a special needs parent group for parents from all backgrounds, which met once a month at our local jewish community centre.  Parents wanted to learn information, so there were different speakers who came, in addition to the parents helping each other. No one had very much free time, but people knew this was important and many tried to come. My mother also helped other parents when it came to IEP meetings. It was a small thing, as my mom explained it, but she would volunteer to go to the IEP meeting of another parent, so they would feel less alone, and be able to speak up. 

My mom was a family advisor before they had family advisors. She did this work unpaid, and even though it ended up helping others, it started because she needed to help my sister. It was not respected work at that time, but it was the sort of work that mothers like her did because they knew their children best and they wanted to make things better. If it wasn’t for moms like mine, I am not sure when deinstitutionalization would have happened.  Inclusion at school and at work, it only occurs now because people like my mom spoke up and showed us how to make it happen.  So this mother’s day, lets thank these mothers. We can all learn from them, to inform what we push for today and tomorrow.  And an extra big shout-out to my mom who is pretty amazing.