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I’m one of those women you know from a distance.  You know the type.  As strong and determined as Margaret Thatcher.  Who can multitask like Elon Musk.  And as stoic and emotionally controlled as Rachel McAdams in The Notebook.

WAIT.  What?!

It caught me totally by surprise.  I can blame it on exhaustion; the cumulation of 18 months of heads down work finally taking its toll.  I can accuse the others in the room for starting the tear-fest, as if it was contagious.  Or, I can just accept the fact that the joy of making a difference in someone’s life, if even for a day, hit my core and got through that thin layer of steel surrounding my persona.

My partner and bestie, Kristine Goulet is the one that leads with the heart.  We complement each other well because I think my way through decisions and actions, where she feels.  Together, we started Monarch – a healthcare/fashion company designing specialty clothing for those who need assistance dressing, and who want to maintain their dignity and sense of style. Kristine’s Mom lived with Alzheimer’s and for years, Kris struggled with the clothing options available to dress her Mom who had forgotten how to dress and eventually was unable to even assist in the physical process of dressing.  Kris’ heart said – we need to do better.  As my own mother had been recently diagnosed with dementia, I quickly became committed to the cause. I had plenty of business experience and confidence, but I was a complete newbie in human-centered fashion design.

Fast forward to the waterflow of the globular organs…

We connected with a visionary Senior Vice President of Long-term Care at one of the nation’s largest care organizations.  She was interested in our new approach to dressing that reduces pain, shortens the time required to dress and she saw the merits of the design that reduces the risk of skin irritation.

But these clinical benefits were not what made her open her pocket book and buy eight residents entire wardrobes of Monarch’s clothing.  It was because of the emotional benefits she believed those in the care of her organization would experience when they were dressed in something beautiful, when they wore colour that said “look at me”, when they had the attention that women have enjoyed and bestowed upon themselves when they were able to care for themselves independently. Wendy Gilmour of Revera Living wanted to lift spirits.  I tossed out my entire sales pitch when I realized that even at the highest levels of corporate leadership, there existed a genuine compassion and care for people that drove decisions.

Kris and I, and the rest of Team Monarch showed up at a long-term care (LTC) home in St. Catharine’s and we rolled in racks of clothing that were packaged up as Monarch-branded gifts for these eight lucky residents.  A day of makeovers, complete with hairstyling, manicures and make-up was planned.  Celebrity former mayor and Revera’s Chief Elder Officer, Hazel McCallion joined the Monarch and Revera leadership team to participate in the event and photo ops.

As the residents came into the dining room, following their makeovers, we took the time to get to know each of them and their families. Each of their stories about how they found themselves in the care of others was unique, and each brought you closer to these women.  I realized that my own family members or I, myself, could just as easily have drawn the short straw in life and experienced brain cancer; the life-shattering sports injury, or the decline in brain health that comes with age.

Watching the confused but happy surprise of these women as they were presented one by one with colourful wardrobes gave me the first hint of the pending emotional flood.  As they enjoyed the makeovers and were dressed in their new clothes, we saw 92-year-old Marion transition from a quiet and reserved lady to a dancing machine. She didn’t want to make just an average entrance. A fan of music her whole life, she requested a specific song for her big reveal, and when she made her entrance, she gracefully moved her hips in a dance reminiscent of Ginger Rogers while her walker was her Fred Astaire.  Colleen’s somber mood changed and her pre-brain tumour personality seemed to surface as she glanced at herself in the mirror and announced “pretty damn nice!”  But it was Vicki’s transformation that blew me over.  Vicki required the attention of many of the caregivers.  She sat in her wheelchair and picked through her gift of clothing, choosing the brightest pink floral top to wear.  She was whisked away to enjoy some one-on-one pampering and when she was wheeled out to the group of onlookers, the PSWs, the kitchen staff and quickly the Monarch team, all broke into tears.  Vicki beamed.  Her pink lips and rosy cheeks complemented her outfit, but the transformation went deeper than a layer of make-up, it was the happiness in her eyes that grabbed us by surprise.  What I learned later was that Vicki was prone to screaming out through the day. But not this day.  Not once.

I had to leave the room a number of times in search of tissues to wipe away the evidence of “lack of control”.  As I reflect on the day, I have a greater appreciation of the value and reward of providing for those who find themselves in the care of others – a hint of what we all take for granted in our “normal” lives.  My heart feels for these women. Life has dealt them challenges that are unfair.

I think the value of the event was summed up by a loving PSW who passionately said, “If we like to dress up all of our lives, why would that change when we find ourselves in the care of others?”

I am OK with the tears now.  At first, I was embarrassed, but now I actually find myself hoping that I feel them sneak up on me again.  Because that will mean we made a difference, and that’s worth a tissue or two.