How this 81-year-old King's student is fighting back against Alzheimer's

Ron Robert, 81, got a push to pursue education after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago.

Ron Robert says going to university classes has improved his long-term memory

Ron Robert is a part-time political science student at King's University College and graduating with a degree is top of his bucket list. (Submitted)

At 16 years old, a young and ambitious Ron Robert jumped into a dynamic career that landed him journalistic stints reporting provincial and federal politics and even as special assistant to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

He retired in his 70s, only to switch gears and embark on a new journey.

The 81-year-old is now doing the one thing he couldn't do throughout his life: get a university degree.

"Because you're old, doesn't mean you have to give up. Keep an optimistic attitude and enjoy your life. You owe it to yourself," he said.

Robert is a part-time political science student at King's University College and graduating with a degree is top of his bucket list.

The push to pursue education came after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago.

Mental and physical health improvements

Robert said going to school three days a week has helped improve his long-term memory.

"By doing all those tests those young people do, I'm challenged on a weekly basis," he said.

"I have homework to do and I have papers to write. I have to take the quizzes and final exams. Those all make me think harder about what I'm reading and what I'm learning," he said.

His enrolment in King's this past September happened after he and his wife spent a year commuting to Wilfrid Laurier University.

I certainly didn't want to sit on my butt and let my brain turn to mush- Ron Robert

Robert said many of his classes touch on historical moments he was either part of or watched unfold in real-time, like the 1973 global oil crisis or the 1980 national energy policy.

"It just triggered everything … All of that stuff comes back. I haven't gotten it all back yet but it's coming. Every time I take another course, I remember more," he said.

The Halifax native spent 20 years as a radio and television journalist and worked alongside many Canadian officials, such as Tommy Douglas, the former premier of Saskatchewan and the first leader of the federal NDP. Robert also led the western desk in the office of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

Robert, a Metis man, helped establish the Canadian Aboriginal Festival and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and later became a council member for the Historica Foundation of Canada.

Many of his life accomplishments were forgotten with Alzheimer's, and going back to school has helped him remember again. However, he mentioned he still struggles with short-term memory loss.

Ron Robert is now one of the faces of the Alzheimer Society. (Alzheimer Society )

Not only that, he said his physical health also improved through daily 5- to 15-kilometre walks and use of public transit.

'I find millennials great'

Robert said the social aspect of being on campus "came as a beautiful surprise."

He described himself as the "neutral, grandpa type," whose nonjudgmental attitude attracted crowds of younger students who became friends.

"Those young people are great! I love this generation! … I find millennials … great! They're bright, they're articulate and most importantly, they're caring. I've got so many caregivers," he said. 

Many of them also turn to him for advice.

"They feel right at home telling me all their problems. I even hear about their boyfriend and girlfriend problems," he said.

Robert said he feels the most confident he's ever been his whole life.

More resources needed

Robert, who's now one of the faces of the Alzheimer Society London and Middlesex, said there's a lack of resources for people like him.

When he was first diagnosed, he felt like he was on his own, that health care professionals and online sources didn't help him deal with the diagnoses, which is another reason why he decided to turn to post-secondary education.

"I certainly didn't want to sit on my butt and let my brain turn to mush," he said.

Robert plans on writing progress reports and getting biannual MRIs to monitor his improvements, in the hopes of inspiring others.

"It's sad to say but a lot of seniors when they get diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia or any other illness they sort of give up and I just don't believe that's the way to go," he said. His two late brothers were also diagnosed with the disease.

"You know if you don't fight back of course it's going to take over."