The Current

This couple 'adopted' their elder friend, and now they live as a family

When Marike Finlay and her partner, Karin Cope, decided to move from Quebec to the Maritimes 20 years ago, they asked their older friend, Elisabeth Bigras: "Why don't you come?"

'If Elisabeth weren't with us now, she would have to be in assisted living,' says Marike Finlay

From left, Elisabeth Bigras, Marike Finlay and Karin Cope enjoy some time on the water with their dog, Enya. When Finlay and Cope moved from Quebec to West Quoddy, N.S., they invited their older friend, Bigras, to come with them. (Submitted by Karin Cope)

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Originally published on April 29, 2021.

When Marike Finlay and her partner, Karin Cope, decided to leave Quebec and move to the Nova Scotia coast, they asked their older friend, Elisabeth Bigras: "Why don't you come?"

"We asked Elisabeth to think about it, and Karin and I thought about it very seriously," said Finlay, who was mindful of the 20-year age gap between them and their friend.

"We knew that if we were inviting Elisabeth to come and retire here with us, that meant that we were committing to be with her throughout her old age," she told The Current.

The couple worked as professors at McGill University, where Finlay met Bigras through the older woman's late husband, Julien. When he died, the women became closer friends, going on sailing trips that took them along Canada's East Coast. 

Those trips prompted Finlay and Cope to move to the coast and invite Bigras along. She said yes, and 20 years later, she's never regretted the decision.

Bigras, 86, says she's never regretted the decision to move east with her two friends. (Submitted by Karin Cope)

"It was wonderful," said Bigras, now 86. "It was exactly what I would have wished."

The women share a household in West Quoddy, N.S., and though they initially split their finances 50/50, they've adjusted over the years in line with who has more money available.

The house has been arranged to provide privacy when it's needed, but the women cook together, eat together and spend their time together much the way any family would. 

Bigras, who had a career as a psychiatrist in Quebec, never had children of her own.

As Bigras has gotten older, Finlay thinks their choice to "adopt" her has given her the support she needs and kept their friendship strong.

"If Elisabeth weren't with us now, she would have to be in assisted living," Finlay said.

Finlay, right, and her partner 'adopted' Bigras, left, when they moved from Quebec to Nova Scotia together 20 years ago. (Submitted by Karin Cope)

Getting older sometimes 'about loss'

As the years have passed, Bigras says she's realized that "old age is a lot about loss."

"First friends because they died, beloved ones … and then I lost my hearing; I lost music. And that was a terrible thing," she said.

Bigras gave up her driver's licence and cooks at home less often — aside from some of her specialities, such as "canard à l'orange." But she's found other hobbies to fill the time, including photography.

Bigras has taken up photography during her retirement. (Courtesy Karin Cope)

"If you can work to find inside yourself what fascinates you, what you can have a passion for, it helps a lot," she said.

Her photography has led to some frights when the three go for hikes. Sometimes, Cope says she and Finlay will go ahead while leaving Bigras to rest along the trail. When they return, they'll often find her sprawled on the ground. 

"We're completely freaked out, 'Oh, my God, what's happened to her? She's dying! She's dead!' " Cope said.

Invariably, Bigras is just taking a close-up picture of something she's found on the ground.

Cope, right, says Bigras is the elder she turns to 'for a lot of the wisdom that I need.' (Submitted by Karin Cope)

'It takes a village to keep an elder'

Finlay and Cope think their own blood relatives don't quite understand the life they've built with Bigras, but the local community has come to "an understanding very quickly that we are a family."

Cope's own parents live outside Canada. As a result, she says Elisabeth is the elder she turns to for wisdom and as a model for how to age. 

"This is the elder that I love, who is first in my heart, who I will commit myself to seeing to the end of her days."

Finlay thinks their story shows an alternative to elder care, and said it "beats putting them in the old age home."

"Maybe it takes a village also to keep an elder, not just to raise a child," she said.

The pandemic has exposed devastating shortcomings in how Canada provides care for its elderly population, with harrowing stories of neglect and soaring death tolls in long term-care homes as the virus burned through those facilities. 

WATCH | Failures in long-term care during COVID-19 outlined in auditor general's report: 

Ontario failed to manage COVID-19 in long-term care homes, auditor general finds

1 year ago
Duration 2:05
A report from Ontario’s auditor general found the deadly toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care homes was fuelled by understaffing, poor infection control and exacerbated by the slow action of the provincial government.

In Quebec, a coroner's inquest into long-term care deaths is underway, while Ontario's auditor general released a report Wednesday saying the sector was not "prepared or equipped" for the pandemic.

Long-term care residents account for almost half of the nearly 8,000 Ontarians who have died of COVID-19. 

Finlay wants to see more help from all levels of government to make it feasible for other Canadians to care for elders in their own homes, and said that could include monetary incentives. 

"I think it costs thousands of dollars to keep somebody in an old-age home, whereas it would be hundreds of dollars of incentives to try to say, 'Let's try and keep the elderly in households, in families,' " she said.

"It sure might be an incentive for a lot of other families to entertain this possibility." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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