When Ron Robert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 78 and told it was incurable, he was shocked. He’d had a long career as a political journalist and an aide to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and Alzheimer’s just didn’t seem like it could happen to someone so mentally active, even though two of Robert’s siblings suffered from the disease.
But Robert wasn’t going to take this diagnosis lying down. Instead, he decided to change his lifestyle drastically. He’d always dreamed of going back to school, so he enrolled in college as an undergraduate student.
“I thought when I was given this diagnosis, I got to change my lifestyle; I’ve got to do something about this thing,” Robert said. “I mean, I’m not just going to sit on my butt and let my brain turn to mush.”
Now, at the ripe old age of 81, Robert is a first-year undergraduate student at King’s University College in London, Ontario. He attends political science and disability studies classes two days a week and completes all of the same homework, papers, and tests that the other students do.
“Too many people, they get diagnosed with something like Alzheimer’s and they think somehow it’s the end,” Robert said. “Well, it’s not an end—it’s just a new beginning. It’s something you’ve got to work at. And actually, it’s a good thing because I was getting quite bored being retired! So this is all a new challenge for me.”
Robert doesn’t hide his diagnosis from his peers. He says these students, who are young enough to be his grandchildren, often respond simply by saying, “You don’t look like you have Alzheimer’s!”
“I basically say I’m here to keep it at bay and they all think it’s wonderful,” Robert added. “They’re so receptive to it. They sort of look a bit sad at first, but then after I talk to them for a little bit, then they’re all for it.”
Of course, Robert doesn’t have the short-term recall that his classmates have, so learning is often much more difficult. On top of that, he can get turned around just trying to make it to class. But there are always some kind students on campus to redirect him when he gets a little lost.
All in all, the effort seems to ahve been worth it. “I feel really good,” Robert said. “The short-term memory is terrible; long-term memory has improved. I feel better mentally, and I think that’s a big important part too. You’ve got to be upbeat.”
It is Robert’s dream to graduate with his peers and earn his degree. “I want to cross that stage with some of those great, bright young adults… to graduate,” he said. “I’m hoping I’m the beginning of a wave—I hope that all those people out there listening that have given up on Alzheimer’s will just get off their butts and join me out here!”
Thank you, Ron, for showing us all that Alzheimer’s cannot stop you from achieving your dreams! You are an amazing human being!
See more of Robert’s amazingly positive attitude and learn about his plan to stave off the effects of his Alzheimer’s disease for as long as possible in the video below.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?