Ottawa

Fitness class for people with early-onset dementia a place for body and mind

It may look like an ordinary fitness class, but there's something unique about this weekly gathering at Carleton University's athletics centre — every participant has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

New program geared toward younger dementia patients already has wait list

The group meets every Tuesday at Carleton University's athletics centre. (Denise Fung/CBC)

It may look like an ordinary fitness class, but there's something unique about this weekly gathering at Carleton University's athletics centre — every participant has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

Its members, who range in age from 48 to 65, have been meeting here every Tuesday since last October to run, swim and do Pilates together.

Robin Meyers, director of community support services for charity Carefor, came up with the idea. Because fitness programs for Alzheimer's patients are normally geared toward participants 65 and over, younger clients felt like they didn't fit in, she said.

Robin Meyers knows all about early-onset dementia. Her husband, Keith, was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, although he's not a member of the club. (Denise Fung/CBC)

"The age is different, the music we listen to, the activities — it's chair exercises versus sort of a physical activity. I mean, I can't integrate Pilates into most of my seniors' groups, but this group can do it," Meyers told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

But it's not just the physical activities that make this group different, she said. Part fitness class, part social club, it's also a comfortable place for members to talk through some of the unique challenges facing people diagnosed with dementia at an early age.

"Someone under the age of 65 is likely very in tune with the fact they're living with the diagnosis of Alzheimer's and probably willing to talk about it. That would be very different from someone who's, say, 80 years old," Meyers said.

Tom Makichuk gave up his job and driver's licence after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia. (Denise Fung/CBC)

The group has no official name, but some of the sly ideas members have suggested — The Brainy Bunch and Stay Fit and Forget About It — certainly suggest an upbeat attitude.

"I think the most important thing for people to keep in mind is that [early-onset dementia is] not necessarily a death sentence, in and of itself," participant Tom Makichuk told Ottawa Morning.

"It's a new chapter. It's a new opportunity. It's a chance to explore something and live something different."

A group of people diagnosed with young on-set dementia have been getting together regularly since October, 2019. Part fitness group, part social club, the youngest member is 48-years-old. And the hope is for the people with the group to be able to talk through some of the challenges of being diagnosed with dementia mid-life. 7:29

The group's youngest member, Sylvain Lepage, 48, was diagnosed in October. Lepage said before joining, he didn't do much.

"My wife says I used to live in 'Youtubeland.' I used to have my tablet and my earphones and watched Youtube all day long," he told Ottawa Morning. "We know we come here because we have dementia, but we forget about it for the day."

Sylvain Lepage is the club's youngest member at 48. He said before joining the group he rarely left his house. (Denise Fung/CBC)

Membership is currently capped at 10, and there's a wait list. Meyers, whose own husband was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, said she's hoping that popularity will signal the need for similar programs elsewhere. 

"This is exactly what I had hoped for," she said, choking back tears. "Bringing people together and seeing that they're just like everyone else."

The club is about more than just fitness. Participants also talk through some of the challenges of being diagnosed with dementia at an early age. (Denise Fung/CBC)

With files from Denise Fung

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