There are many
families like ours

Garry Smith was 75 years old.

He had a sharp mind, enjoyed walking and spending time with his three young grandsons.

But a trip to the hospital for a respiratory illness would change his life forever. The onset of dementia was swift and heartbreaking. His family didn’t see it coming. Garry often finds it difficult to remember what life was like.

Dementia has taken away his loving memories, one chapter at a time. For now, he still recognises his three young grandsons, Freddie (9), Louis (7) and Tommy (5), but his daughter Bridget knows that may not be for long. This is her story in her own words.

Garry with his grandsons Freddie, Louis and Tommy

Dad was admitted to hospital with a lung infection in Rockhampton last year. At the time, I thought it would just be a regular hospital stay, but a few days later I started to see some worrying signs.

Close family friends found him wandering and disorientated at the hospital. When they asked him what he was doing he just stared blankly at them. Once a strong-willed man, Dad quickly become fragile and emotional while he was in hospital. He was nervous when I wasn’t around and retreated into himself.

I was soon to learn that Dad’s deterioration in hospital is not uncommon for people who have early onset of dementia. Our doctor told us that hospital stays can escalate the disease and that one in three people won’t return to normal.

In just a week, Dad went from being a stubborn, independent man who was determined to keep living on his own to not wanting to be without me or his grandsons.

We immediately moved Dad from Rockhampton to Brisbane to live with our family. At first, I was hopeful he might bounce back, but soon realised that was unlikely.

Dad would regularly set off on his scooter to explore the bike paths and parks around our Brisbane suburb only to become lost and confused. On one occasion, he went missing for more than four hours. The boys and I jumped on our bikes and searched for ages, before a lovely woman helped him find his way home. He repeatedly became lost for hours at a time, losing track of time and place.

Brisbane is a long way from where Dad was from. Born and raised in New Zealand, he moved to Queensland in his early twenties. He soon found himself working in the small mining town of Moura in Central Queensland where he met my mum – Varee. It was a true love story of friendship, respect and admiration for each other. They were the best of friends and their steady marriage provided an idyllic childhood for their three kids growing up in Moura.

My parents lived the true Australian dream. Dad worked his way up from being a carpenter to a manager for BHP and they happily raised us kids supporting our pursuits in rugby league, BMX or ballet. We often reflect on our dream life back in Moura. Simple, happy and uncomplicated.

But it wasn’t to last. In 2006, we lost my dearly loved mother to lung cancer when she was just 50. Six months later, my 30 year-old brother, David, committed suicide on Christmas Eve. It was a tragic chapter in our lives and would be the first memory to slip from my Dad at the onset of his dementia.

I recall the first time I pointed to a photograph of Mum and asked my Dad who she was. He had no idea.

Sometimes I find Dad staring at a photo of Mum, I’ll ask him what he is doing and he will tell me he is studying her. He says he doesn’t want to forget who she is. He can’t remember David at all. Those chapters have been the first to be taken.

The dementia has taken away my Dad, his body is still there, but he’s not who he once was. Dad loved a good yarn, our family was known to talk things through until we were blue in the face. But now, I struggle to get a sentence from him. He has retreated into himself. I often ask him where he is and he will say he is in Moura.That brings me some comfort.

For the last 15-years, Dad had been living with a lung condition and doctors even gave him a terminal diagnosis in the early days.

His lungs were my biggest concern; when he was diagnosed with dementia it was a curveball I didn’t see coming. There are good life lessons for my young boys to learn from this experience, about caring and supporting the elderly like their Grandad. They have seen first-hand the ravages of dementia – and they help where they can, often having to look for him on their bikes.

I fear the day Dad can no longer remember his grandsons, as they are the love of his life.

The heartbreaking truth is, there are so many families like mine, stumbling our way through different stages of dementia. Juggling, crying, fearful of the future, worrying about what memory will be taken away next.

Together we must stop this cruel disease. The amazing pioneering research at QIMR Berghofer is the light at the end of the tunnel.


Your donation goes directly to research at QIMR Berghofer, which funds projects such as Associate Professor Tony White’s dementia research.

Funding leads to discoveries in our laboratories, which lead to treatments and cures that create a healthy future for you and your loved ones.