Carolyn Birrell’s journey through a parent’s dementia and building a life in Bonners Ferry By Taylor Shillam | Photo by Carolyn Testa
“I feel like the luckiest girl to have landed in Bonners Ferry,” describes local author Carolyn Testa, soon to be Carolyn Birrell. It was a challenging, yet heartwarming, story that drew her to Bonners Ferry. It was there that she helped her mother navigate the difficult journey through dementia, and along the way became an integral part of the local community.
“I moved my mother to Bonners Ferry in 2012 from North Georgia under the guise of visiting me for the summer, then spent the next eight years caring for her,” Birrell says. She and her husband at the time discovered Bonners Ferry while exploring western states, looking for the right place to slow down from their busy lifestyle in real estate and homebuilding.
“It was 1997, and the downtown beautification plan hadn't even been implemented yet,” Birrell describes. “The sidewalks were still narrow—no widened Main Street, and no flower baskets. It seemed that half the storefronts were vacant. I remember leaving my sunglasses in the diner, now Mi Pueblo, and the waitress found us walking down another street to give them to me. We fell in love with this town.” The couple used their savings to buy buildings and renovate them, a “new dream job” for Birrell.
“My first project was the old Randall Day Law Building on the corner of Main and Kootenai,” she recalls. “Then I renovated the Vinyl Expressions building, the Bonnerport Building, the 9B Pho building, and the Coalition Cowork building. I remember the old city administrator telling me one day that I was like a lady who collected sad stray cats.” Birrell then set her sights on one of her “biggest dream projects”: what would become The Pearl Theater.
After attending the Shook Twins’ first performance in Bonners Ferry in the empty meeting space over the fire department, Birrell made a call about the old church on Ash Street that was posted for sale. “About a week later, I found myself walking through that beautiful old church with turquoise walls and an ‘80s renovation, picturing exactly where the stage would go and planning the café,” she smiles. Her dream came to life about six months later with the grand opening play, Paul Rawlings' "No Cure for Love.”
Today, The Pearl is a 501c3 nonprofit organization owned and operated by a board of directors. “It truly takes a village to run it,” she says. Birrell’s mark on the community continued with her bringing the Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot to town. “The 5k/10k fun run began as a fun little way to give back to the community (and share my cold-weather running misery) by gathering a group of like-minded runners with nothing to do that morning and, well, run,” Birrell says.
In its first year in 2007, 75 runners joined the Turkey Trot, each bringing an item to contribute to the Food Bank. “It's morphed into a family friendly annual event with music, tons of prizes, pumpkin pie, hot cocoa, and even a burn barrel,” she says. “We had over 200 runners last year and a truckload of food for the Food Bank.” Birrell has given wholeheartedly to the town she now calls home, pouring back the support she readily received from the community.
“The Bonners Ferry community didn't hesitate to gather us up in their arms and not only welcome my mother but support us both as I found my way with her,” she describes. Throughout her journey of caring for her mother, Birrell received “mountains of cards” and texts throughout the day.
“I can't tell you how many times she received a personal ride home from a well-meaning person who discovered her on some random escapade around town.” When she first began mentioning her memoir around town, Birrell had ample volunteers to read the manuscript. “I was amazed that it didn't seem to matter what situation each person was in—almost everyone came away with a renewed enthusiasm to listen better, communicate more lovingly, or exercise more patience in some current challenging relationship they were in,” she says. “I never realized going into this that we're all dealing with something.”
Birrell’s primary goal was to provide a reassuring resource for those “in the trenches” of caring for a loved one with dementia. “When I first brought my mother to Bonners Ferry from her home, I was immediately overwhelmed and questioned every decision I made when it came to her care,” Birrell shares. “It didn't help that she didn't want my care—and told me so daily. I needed a book like this then: genuine stories told by an everyday person that I could relate to.” During her mother Fay’s early-to-mid stages of dementia, Birrell says it often felt impossible to separate normal behavior from her "new" behaviors: insisting someone was breaking in at night; buying three gallons of milk from three separate grocery trips in one day; and stealing her neighbors' mail.
“She was like herding cats—angry wet ones—and I was drowning in a sea of indecision and guilt,” Birrell recalls. As challenging as it was, she was continuously inspired to write a book that was encouraging, uplifting, and meant to help others going through the same journey find solace. Birrell will celebrate the publication of her memoir, “Walking with Fay,” becoming available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books and more in early 2022, alongside the community she feels so lucky to have found. “They say you travel in a full circle in life, and I think I completed mine when I made Bonners Ferry my home.”