Man with Alzheimer's teaches medical students about the importance of patience
TORONTO – Standing at the front of the classroom, 82-year-old Ron Robert addresses a group of first- and second-year medical students, many of whom are young enough to be his grandchildren.
Robert isn’t a professor or visiting academic. He’s an undergraduate student who lives with Alzheimer’s, and he wants the next generation of doctors to understand what it’s like to live with the disease.
“I want them to be more patient, to give them advice on how to live with Alzheimer’s,” he told CTV News.
Robert, a former reporter who later worked in Ottawa with prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. At the time, his doctor called him to deliver the news.
"He said, ‘I have some bad news, Ron,’” Robert recalled of the conversation. “’You’ve got Alzheimer’s and you’ve lost your driver’s licence. See you sometime in the next while.’”
The doctor’s blunt tone left Robert stunned.
“What the hell am I going to do now?” he recalled thinking.
More than 564,000 Canadians are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Estimates suggest that, in the next 15 years, more than a million people will live with the disease.
Robert said he struggled with depression after the diagnosis, and he’s heard similar stories from others who’ve felt that their doctor dismissed them.
“The biggest problem (is) they don't see Alzheimer’s as something important as a medical profession. It’s just one of those nuisance things – get rid of it,” he said.
Despite feeling dismissed by his doctor, Robert wasn’t ready to give up on his health. Instead, he decided to enroll in school at Kings University College affiliated with Western Ontario in London, Ont., where he takes classes in political science and disability studies.
The idea was an experiment to see whether a formal post-secondary education could help keep the neurodegenerative condition at bay.
Since then, he’s also become an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, bringing with him a wealth of first-hand knowledge about living with the brain disease.
One of the big messages Robert wants to get across is the importance of patience. Speaking with the medical students at the university, Robert stressed how important it is to be sensitive with patients and to consider patients as people with individual needs, not just a set of illnesses.
“You have no idea how much of an effect you have,” he told the students. “When you’re dealing with this kind of thing as doctors, two key words are kindness and patience.”
Students in the class said it was helpful to hear someone with Alzheimer’s speak from his own experience.
“The biggest message I got from his talk was to be kind and patient with everybody who I see in my practice … it sounds cheesy, but it’s really the truth,” said one student.
Robert said that, in a strange sense, having Alzheimer’s “has been a blessing.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but it gave me a whole new life,” he said. “After I finish talking to students, I feel like I gave them something, and that is important.”