EDITOR - TODD LIHOU: Alzheimer disease touches us all, regardless of age

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Which would you prefer – to be sick yet blissfully unaware there is a problem, or to face a daily reminder of an ailment that has consumed your life?

When it comes to dementia and Alzheimer disease you get a little bit of both, which makes the dreaded affliction all the more frustrating…and depressing.

There are hundreds of people in the Cornwall area, and thousands more across the country, that grapple with dementia every day.

I had the privilege of meeting a pair of those people last week. Marian Burgess has battled dementia since a diagnosis in 2009. Her husband, "Prince Albert" Burgess (as she refers to him) has stood by her side for 57 years and to this day continues to be her biggest supporter and a rock in the storm.

But even Albert admits there are days when dementia goes too far. Patience can wear thin when you must answer, for the 20th time, what day it is, or what time it is.

Short-term memory can be one of the first "things" to go when a person is diagnosed with a dementia issue – so it's fair to suggest that an Alzheimer diagnosis affects not only the patient, but their family too.

It goes beyond the unending questions too. Spouses and children of dementia patients have a front-row seat, watching their mother, father, wife or husband slowly slip away before their eyes.

Our family was not untouched by dementia. My grandmother Dorothy was a sufferer of dementia. She spent years fading in and out, unaware things as simple as who her children were on many days.

At the end Alzheimer disease left her a shell of her former jovial self. The smile was still there, but the blank stares of confusion betrayed the real story.

Before a person gets to that stage there are often years of frustration, fear and depression. Marian said she can have a string of good days, before a single thought, or phrase from a close friend, can send her spiraling downwards.

"You don't look THAT bad today."

Sometimes knowing you're sick can often be worse than the disease itself.

The Burgesses are just a small part of 883 families that have accessed programming offered by the Alzheimer Society in the last nine months.

Marian said the programming has been helpful, if not tinged with just a touch of melancholy.

"When I leave, sometimes I forget what we talked about," she said. "But I feel better."

Alzheimer Society of Canada caseworker Laurie Kennedy said that's often because the brain stores its memories differently than it stores feelings.

"When they leave they can sometimes feel lighter," she said.

Some facts:

- An estimated 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.

- Women make up almost three-quarters of Canadians with Alzheimer's disease.

- In just 5 years, as much as 50% more Canadians and their families could be facing Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.

- Alzheimer's disease is the second most feared disease for Canadians as they age.

January marks Alzheimer Disease awareness month. Mayor Bob Kilger signed a proclamation to that end recently, and the local society office has a "Walk for Memories" planned for Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Cornwall Civic Complex to raise money and awareness for the ailment.

We all need to support this kind of initiative. While we're not expecting an Alzheimer cure anytime soon (though there have been plenty of advances in recent years), attending such an event shows solidarity.

Cancer has the Relay for Life, AIDS benefits from the Walk for Life and Team Diabetes is getting people active in support of that ailment.

Alzheimer Disease can be lost in the shuffle, as many people still consider it a problem to tackle later in life.

Family members of those suffering with dementia will tell you Alzheimer Disease effects people of all ages, because we all grapple with its devastation.

Organizations: Prince Albert, Alzheimer Society of Canada

Geographic location: Cornwall

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