Cannabis softens landing for ailing seniors

Photo by Amanda Siebert

Originally published on The Georgia Straight

Before passing away suddenly in September 2016, Doreen Hayley made her son swear not to put his father, Raymond, in a care home.

The “normal bachelor life” William Hayley had been living in Vancouver was about to come to a halt: with his mother gone and his 92-year-old father suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he was thrown into the position of caretaker without an instruction manual.

At the time, he had no idea how big a role cannabis would play in easing his father into the final stage of life.

Among Raymond’s favourite places to take in the sights and sounds of Vancouver were the docks of Granville Island. It was there on a summer day in late June that the Straightfirst met the Hayleys.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his 70s, Raymond had spent the better part of 20 years suffering from the degenerative disorder that caused uncontrollable shaking and rigidity. As it progressed, Parkinson’s came with its own brands of dementia and anxiety, and Raymond would experience a symptom called “sundowning” almost daily.

Each afternoon like clockwork, William said, his father’s agitation and confusion became otherworldly.

“He’d get into these states—the closest thing I could relate it to is a possession,” he said. “The look on his face would change, things didn’t make sense to him; he would moan, and sometimes he’d hit himself or a chair.”

With his father waking up hourly, sleep escaped William, too. Their health suffered, and William developed anemia as Raymond’s condition deteriorated.

At his wits’ end and with no option from doctors but powerful antipsychotics, William watched a Facebook video of a man with Parkinson’s disease whose tremors subsided after he took Phoenix Tears, a highly concentrated cannabis extract.

“I thought, ‘Rather than having him come to this terrible crashing end like a plane cartwheeling down a runway, what if we could soften the landing for him?’ ”

William consulted with his father’s physician before visiting local dispensary the Village Bloomery, where he opted for a four-to-one CBD-to-THC tincture, a ratio that would minimize psychoactivity while decreasing anxiety. He said the effects on his father were almost immediate.

“Within 30 minutes, he went from eating cookies to stacking them up and building with them. He was calm, he wasn’t moaning, and he wasn’t shaking,” William remembered.

He also said that when the tension in Raymond’s body stopped, it opened the doorway to sleep—something he hadn’t done for more than 40 minutes at a time in almost five years.

“All of a sudden, six hours became eight, and eight became 10,” William said. With his father able to sleep, William could do the same. Physically, Raymond had some control of his body back, and mentally, the symptoms of his dementia began to subside, according to William. He added that the sundowning stopped and there was light in his eyes again.

“I’ve got it down to a routine where I put it in his dentures,” William said as we circled Granville Island. “He likes it, he wants it, and he knows that it’s working.”

Raymond passed away peacefully in his son’s arms on August 21, 2017. Today, William says that not only did cannabis give him his father back; it gave his father the ability to grieve, something dementia had robbed him of.

“He was married for 69 years—some people don’t live that long,” William said in a follow-up interview. “When he became lucid enough to realize his situation, that his wife had passed away and everything was gone, he was actually able to grieve. At least with cannabis, I could talk to him about it.”

It’s the type of bittersweet story known well by Selena Wong, a Vernon-based cannabis consultant who specializes in end-of-life care.

Calling cannabis her “saving grace”, Wong said that when she realized that cannabis could have value for her grandparents, it was a game changer. But she noted that there are a few things to consider when administering cannabis to an elderly person.

“I’m really mindful that the people I work with have a positive experience with cannabis,” she said. “Seniors are people, and just like you and I want to know what we’re taking, so do they.”

Topical lotions or CBD products are good starting points, she said, because they won’t cause euphoria. A tincture is also a great option for seniors who might have trouble swallowing capsules.

“Because of the conditioning they’ve experienced, it helps them to reframe that relationship with the plant without having a negative experience.”

Looking back, William says that without cannabis, he’s not sure how well he would have coped with his father’s illness, but he’s happy to have kept his promise to his mother.

“A year is a long time to give up,” he says, “but I’d give $10 million just for another 10 minutes with him.”