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'A wonderful feeling': 84-year-old Canadian with Alzheimer's graduates from university

Ron Robert collects his bachelor’s degree from Western University in London, Ont. on Oct. 19. Ron Robert collects his bachelor’s degree from Western University in London, Ont. on Oct. 19.
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A Canadian man with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease has battled through the brain disorder to graduate with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 84.

Ron Robert, who has spent the past four years taking 35 courses on history, political science and cross disciplinary studies, graduated from King's University College in London, Ont. on Wednesday.

Robert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015 and struggled with depression after receiving the news. He described his decision to enrol in university “a personal experiment that has succeeded by setting an example.”

“It’s such a wonderful feeling,” Robert told CTVNews.ca as he prepared to receive his diploma at Convocation Hall. “It gives a lot of people hope that they can live they can still live a good life with Alzheimer's. There will come a time when I won't be able to, and I fully expect that. But in the meantime, I'm living a full life.”

Robert is not alone either. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, more than 569,000 people were living with dementia in Canada in 2020. In a report released by the group in September this year, they predicted nearly one million people in the country will be living with dementia by the end of the decade.

Over the four years at university, Robert said that despite his Alzheimer’s worsening, he believes the regular mental challenges may have helped slow the deterioration.

“My short term memory is terrible…but my long term memory is not bad. It's actually improved,” he said.

His wife Catherine Cornelius told CTVNews.ca that her husband persevered through the course despite his condition. “He worked hard,” she said. “I definitely believe that his focus on his studies stopped his Alzheimer’s from progressing.”

While on campus, Robert also spoke to medical students, explaining what it’s like to live with memory loss and how patience and kindness from medical professionals is appreciated by those who suffer with dementia.

Robert also credits teachers on his courses for adapting their classes to help him remember information, by recording the lectures he attended so he could listen to them multiple times.

One of his professors, Jeff Preston says he is “thrilled” by Ron’s achievement.

“I think Ron is the living embodiment of the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, or perhaps, don’t assume someone cannot [do something] simply because of a diagnosis.” Preston told CTVNews.ca.

“We have this perception that people with disabilities like Alzheimer’s are wholly incapable. I think what Ron has shown is that all sorts of people can succeed in a university classroom when provided with the right environment and supports to nurture success,” he added.

The walk across the stage to collect his degree culminates in a 60-year wish for Robert. He said he had always wanted to attend university and instead had a 20-year career as a radio and television journalist in Saskatchewan and Alberta and worked as a political aide to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

In early November, he turns 85 years old. With one diploma to hang on his wall, he has plans to begin studies for a Master’s degree, and hopes to research ways of living better with Alzheimer’s disease, with his own experience as a model for others.

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