‘It’s a bit like sitting on a fence’: St. Catharines senior braces for possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis

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Adrian and Frenda Gordon moved to St. Catharines during the pandemic. Adrian is likely to develop Alzheimer’s as he ages, and his wife has been taking classes through the Niagara Alzheimer’s Society to learn how to care for him.

Adrian Gordon knows that he may not have a memory for a long time.

The 75-year-old St. Catharines resident was diagnosed 10 years ago with mild cognitive impairment, which he said is not Alzheimer’s but often leads to the disease.

“It’s a bit like sitting on a fence and on one side is beautiful green grass, and on the other side is a very steep hill that goes down to sort of a soggy nothingness,” he said. “So I mentioned that I don’t really have Alzheimer’s and I’m hopeful that I never will. But it’s a clear possibility.”

Gordon shares his story as part of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a campaign created and supported by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.

According to the society, there are 597,000 people in Canada living with dementia as of 2020.

From 2021 to 2022, the Niagara Region Alzheimer’s Society served 2,177 unique individuals, with a total of 10,776 visits.

It was in 2020 that Adrian, along with his wife Frenda, moved to St. Catharines from Burlington and became involved with the Niagara chapter.

Frenda is her husband’s primary caregiver and has been using the society’s classes on caring for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Over the course of the eight-week class, Frenda said she learned a lot.

“I didn’t really appreciate how many mistakes I’ve (made),” he said. “(Like) not showing enough understanding and compassion. And so I learned more and more that there is no such thing as normal. If Adrian forgets things four times, he should repeat it without letting him know that I’m upset.

Frenda is not alone in her experiences. According to the society, one in five Canadians has experience caring for someone living with dementia.

Teena Kindt, executive director of the Niagara Alzheimer’s Society, said they offer many programs for caregivers, mostly spouses or adult children, of people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

They even have supports for those who may not have that immediate family to turn to, he said.

“We don’t want anyone to go through this journey alone,” he said, encouraging people to connect with society and see what’s available.

Dr. Anne Braun, a geriatrician who works at St. Catharines, said older people with Alzheimer’s and dementia can be a difficult and vulnerable section of the population.

For those living alone, Braun said the pandemic has exacerbated an already difficult situation.

“Switching to virtual care worked well for some people, but for older people, that doesn’t work well,” he said. “The phone call is better than nothing… but it’s certainly not as good as seeing the person.”

Kindt said the society isn’t limited to people with diagnosed Alzheimer’s or dementia, but caters to anyone concerned about their cognition or anyone just looking for more information.

“We really believe in advocating with someone for their needs,” he said. “We really believe in people living well with dementia as well. Just because someone has been diagnosed with dementia doesn’t mean that, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, their life is over. They can still make a lot of decisions for themselves and they have a lot of experience we can learn from.”

The hardest part of all, Adrian said, is the stigma around Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Kindt said stigma often prevents people from seeking help early in their illness.

“There are people who are still trying to hide it, which there is no reason to do,” he said. “If only we could break down those barriers and then people wouldn’t be embarrassed to come forward.”

As for the future, Adrian isn’t sure what’s next for him or if he’ll end up with Alzheimer’s.

But Kindt said that regardless of the diagnosis, it’s not the end.

“You can live well with dementia,” he said. “That is our main objective, it is to live well and to live safely.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: For Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, reporter Abby Green wanted to talk to someone living with the disease and find out what resources exist in Niagara to help.

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