Nfld. & Labrador

John Efford goes public with Alzheimer's diagnosis: 'I'm dealing with it in a positive way'

The longtime Liberal politician, known for his fire and frankness, opens up for the first time about the diagnosis that's posing the most serious challenge of his life.

'It's no good complaining,' says former cabinet minister as he takes 2-year battle into public view

John Efford says he is determined to stay positive in the face of an Alzheimer's diagnosis. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

John Efford is no stranger to the spotlight, having thrived for decades in its glare. 

And true to form, the longtime Liberal politician, well known for his frankness and fire, is now speaking openly about the biggest challenge of his life: his Alzheimer's diagnosis.

"The process has started, and I'm going to live one day at a time," he told CBC.

"I gotta deal with it now, and I'm dealing with it in a positive way. That I can survive, as long as I possibly can, and think positive about it."

While Efford, 75, is only now speaking publicly about Alzheimer's, he said he's already chatted about it in small groups, such as with fish harvesters, as he continues his lifelong passion for the industry despite never having professionally cast a net himself.

"It's just a natural thing for me to do, is to talk about it," he said.

Talking has defined much of Efford's life and career. Born into a fishing family, he recalls having grown up on the conversations on the wharfs of Port de Grave, conversations that continued throughout his long career as an MHA for the district of the same name, from 1985 to 2001.

Efford was a front-bench cabinet minister during much of the provincial Liberal governments of the 1990s. (CBC)

Having served in the Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet, Efford jumped to federal politics — and the federal cabinet table — before retiring 13 years ago.  

His doctor handed down the diagnosis two years ago, and Efford — never one to avoid confrontation — is facing it head on.

'That's not like me' 

Even in an extended interview with CBC, Efford lost his train of thought only once, and briefly. He notices the effects of the disease most, he said, when he's tired and words begin to fail.

"That's not like me," he said with a laugh.

There is one topic, however, he doesn't want to talk about in light of his diagnosis: hopelessness.

Efford was the federal minister of natural resources in 2005 when then premier Danny Williams and then prime minister Paul Martin hammered out a new agreement on the Atlantic Accord. Sitting with Efford is Loyola Sullivan, who was the provincial finance minister at the time. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

That feeling can seep into any conversation about dementia, and patients and caregivers know it well. But Efford has no use for it.

"It's no good complaining," he said.

"'There's nothing we can do, it's negative, the future's not very bright.' If you go talking like that, you'll never get a cure."

Rather, Efford said, he'd like to leverage his public diagnosis into greater public discourse. Have more people talking about their struggles and symptoms, and rallying for more research and scientific advances.

The Alzheimer's Association says 747,000 Canadians have the disease or another dementia. 

Being among that number doesn't mean Efford is ignoring the circumstances of his reality, or the starkness of what dementia holds. Although he hopes to live to see advances made against the disease, he realizes it will progress, and that as a public figure people will be watching.

Asked if he is comfortable with that scrutiny, Efford's response was instantaneous, and extremely him.

"I have no reason not to be comfortable. It's not something that's going to go away," he said.

"So you got to learn how to live with it. And be as normal as you possibly can."

Standing ovation in legislature   

Efford's normal routine has been a bit altered this week, as he returned to the public spotlight not only to speak about his diagnosis, but as the main attraction at Port de Grave's inaugural Fisher's Feast on Wednesday evening, a gala supper where he was honoured for his public service.

"It was the highlight of my life," he said.

Pam Parsons, the MHA for Harbour Grace-Port de Grave, read a tribute to Efford on Thursday in the House of Assembly. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

On the heels of the gala, he returned to his old stomping grounds Thursday at the House of Assembly, where he received a standing ovation from everyone, regardless of their political stripe, and current Harbour Grace-Port de Grave MHA Pam Parsons delivered a speech in his honour.

A former federal and provincial cabinet minister, Efford keeps up on politics, particularly with the fishery — he'll still go to bat against seals and gill nets in lively discourse — and despite ups and downs, like losing out on the provincial Liberal leadership, he clearly misses public service.

"I retired too early, I really did," he said of his decision to bow out in 2006, a choice he made for his health and his diabetes, which he said had spun out of control.

But in retrospect, "I made a mistake, and I made it myself," he said, owning his errors along with his successes.

But success in the face of dementia is a lot to ask for. However, Efford hopes he can prompt more people to talk about possibilities and positivity, and speak out instead of shutting themselves away.

And to that end, Efford will keep talking.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jane Adey

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