Ron Robert, at 84, with some of his fellow students from his class at London, Ont.’s King’s University College. (Photo courtesy King’s University College)

Treating Alzheimer’s as a matter of degree

  • November 10, 2022

Getting a university degree at age 84 is a bit unusual. Preparing to start a Master’s program at 85 is a rarity. Doing all this while diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is stunning.

Ron Robert walked across the stage at King’s University College In London, Ont., last month to collect a three-year Bachelor’s degree in political science. Now, at the age of 85, he’s taking a few more courses in the hope of embarking on a Master’s degree.

“I’m going to go — I hope, if my head is still working — for my Master’s. It is working, so I’m not going to stop,” Robert told The Catholic Register.

King’s Political Science professor Andrea Lawlor has no doubt Robert’s head works. She taught him through four different courses in Canadian politics and law — four of the 35 courses Robert completed for his degree.

“I didn’t know Ron had Alzheimer’s for the first few weeks I taught him. It wasn’t until he mentioned it in class — quite casually — that I found out,” Lawlor said in an email.

There were small accommodations for Robert — primarily oral exams rather than the traditional two hours of writing longhand answers in a hushed lecture hall. But Lawlor and other professors at King’s were more often making allowances for Robert’s deteriorating eyesight (macular degeneration) than for his memory troubles. Robert recorded lectures so he could listen to them again. Professors assigned him podcasts and documentary films, knowing that hours of reading would be a problem.

Robert played to his strengths on campus. As a former broadcast journalist who had covered the Saskatchewan and Alberta legislatures, rising to cover Parliament in Ottawa for Selkirk News, Robert had the gift of the gab. He was a full and valued participant in classroom discussions. As a former aide to Pierre Trudeau holding down the Western desk in the Prime Minister’s Office, he possessed a wealth of memories of real-life politics — events and debates that are now distant history for his fellow students.

Long-term memory is one of Robert’s strengths.

“My long-term memory improved, but I lost my short-term memory,” Robert explained. “I remembered things from when I was five years old, which I couldn’t have remembered before I got Alzheimer’s. So figure that one out. It’s weird.”

Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2015 wasn’t easy.

“They took my driver’s licence right that day, of course,” he recalled. “I miss that more than anything. That rocked me.”

He had also seen his two older brothers quickly succumb to the disease. He watched as his sisters-in-law took doting and exhausting care of his brothers.

He also looked into the world of puzzles and memory exercises often recommended to people trying to stave off dementia.

“There’s nothing empirical about them though, unfortunately,” he said. “So, I thought, ‘You go to university’ — which I had always wanted to do. You know, you’re tested on a regular basis. To me that made sense. It’s no good just trying to memorize stuff if you don’t have an objective to memorizing.”

Robert had never gone beyond Grade 9. He began his working life as a radio reporter at the age of 17. As he matured in his careers in journalism and politics he ached to get the education he didn’t have in his youth. 

In class Robert was an asset as a witness to history, generous with his knowledge.

“As a professor, I loved the addition of his experiences working in politics and journalism,” said Lawlor. “They really added that human feel to the material”

When premiers and prime ministers, the Meech Lake Accord and the 1982 adoption of Canada’s Constitution popped up in class, Robert could contribute insights only available to an eyewitness.

Students young enough to be his grandchildren appreciated the gift of Robert’s long-term memories.

“Ron connected with the students. There was mutual appreciation,” said Lawlor.

His advice to his own generation facing memory loss is to go beyond “puzzles and stuff” and stay active and engaged with people. 

“Not just university. If you’ve got a passion about something — say you really wanted to learn piano — go take that. Take structured lessons and ensure that you’re tested periodically.”

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