Patients In Paradise

After an afternoon of running errands around town, my mother asked me if, when she’s in her 80s, she should shave her head like the beautiful women she sees here in Barbados.  At first I thought, “No, I don’t think that would be very flattering.” Then I remembered that it doesn’t matter because if she lives that long, she may not have a clue about what’s going on with her hair.

In 2011, my mother began experiencing mild short-term memory loss and severe personality changes. The once loving and playful entrepreneur was becoming a combative homebody. After several misdiagnoses, in 2013 we finally learned that my mother has Frontotemporal Dementia. Since this degenerative disease is terminal and currently has no cure, we were all devastated. The idea that over the next half decade, the woman who held me and bandaged my scraped knees would slowly fade to a unrecognizable shell of her former self was a very upsetting truth to bear.

Adding to the stress of this dramatic change to our lives was the unstable state of the United States economy. Our once comfortable upper-middle class existence was being chipped away by layoffs and hiring discrimination. My mother, the former owner of a successful baking company, was no longer able to work. My father, once president and CEO of his own successful consulting firm and an executive at some of the world’s leading organizations, faced racial and age discrimination and was greatly underemployed. I had begun working at the same leading healthcare organization where my mother initially received treatment for her dementia. After a few months, it became increasingly clear that my mother could not be left home alone and that I would have to leave that job to become a full-time caregiver. Now down to one income and under unbelievable amounts of stress, it became clear to my father that something would have to give. That is when he began exploring the world of nearshore employment in the Caribbean.

After years of false starts and “just kiddings,” we received word that my father had been offered a job on the island nation of Barbados and that he would start work in just over thirty days. In retrospect, being given only thirty days to uproot one’s life and relocate to a foreign country is an unreasonably short amount of time. Not impossible, as we obviously made it, but exceedingly difficult. There is so much involved with arranging immigration for the average family, not to mention a family dealing with our extenuating circumstances.

After expediting passports and stocking up on prescription medication, we were off. Icy winters and financial stressors were in our rearview mirror, while an endless vacation and low cost of living showed bright in our windshield.

Barbados Crop Over
Image: Stock Photo

We arrived in Barbados at the height of the local carnival festival, Crop Over. While my father worked in the capital, my mother and I enjoyed life at the corporate villa just steps from the beach. We admired the scenery and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Our weekends were filled with fun and fanfare as we observed cultural performances that lifted our spirits and ignited our souls.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the island were all so enticing. The people were accommodating and truly went out of their way to be of help where my mother was concerned. With limited mobility, my mother’s wheelchair served as the key to all things vibrant and wonderful as we enjoyed front-row admittance to every exhibit and cultural affair.  After a few weeks, though, my mother was determined for more. She wanted to experience the fullness of island life and slowly became more and more mobile. She went from merely peering at the water from the edge of the villa property to gingerly walking hand-in-hand with her beloved for just a few yards.

We were ecstatic. My mother was making progress, everyone seemed to love us, and we were now living in a tropical paradise. But then Crop Over came to an end and a couple of weeks turned into a couple of months. House-hunting and physician-finding now took priority over our quest for Facebook-worthy fun. Just as quickly as we were thrust into the throes of a quintessential Caribbean experience, we were snatched from our blissful bubble and dropped back into a reality, albeit a reality we had never experienced before. As we began to truly interact with the local communities in Barbados, we began to understand the true meaning of living in a developing nation.

While Barbados certainly has the appearance of all the modern conveniences of a first-world nation and one of the highest literacy rates in the world, some members of the community still have very stigmatized views of mental illness and neuropsychological disorders. On more than one occasion, we have heard Bajans refer to the island’s psychiatric hospital as the “jail for crazy people.” The first time I heard this terminology used, I was somewhat surprised, but much more fearful. If this is how people in Barbados view mental illness, how would they treat my mother, whose neurological disease manifests itself as a psychological disturbance? Would people disrespect my mother? How would I get people to understand her condition and accept her anyway?

It was clear that the leisurely island lifestyle I sought to enjoy would have to be balanced by patience, diligence, and prayer. Cultivating an earthly paradise for my mom would be a worthwhile challenge and I was committed to achieving success.

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