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2013-01-02 at 13:55

Living with dementia

By Leith Dunick,
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Thirteen years ago, when Thunder Bay’s Bill Heibein was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease, he was told he had five good years left.

More than a decade later the 71-year-old still has his wits about him, and is functioning almost exactly as he always did.

“How has it changed my life? Well, to be honest with you, this is a disease and a diagnosis that I don’t think about a whole lot,” he said.

“One of the advantages of running a farm is that what I do on a day-to-day basis is very repetitive. Consequently I don’t have to think a whole lot about what my day is going to be. You get up, you’ve got horses to feed, you have animals to look after, barns to clean. The routine is basically there 365 days of the year. In theory, it really hasn’t changed my life.”

But when he first learned about his diagnosis, he had no idea what to expect.

Hearing the word dementia attached to your well-being if pretty frightening, Heibein said, though it did answer a lot of questions running through his head.

“It’s like a kick in the teeth. I knew something wasn’t right because I had been forgetting meetings. I did a lot of lectures of the Ministry of Agriculture on farm taxation. During lectures I would lose my train of thought … And my wife noticed more changes in what was going on at home.”

On Wednesday Heibein, who has become a national spokesman for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, was front and centre at city hall as the local chapter kicked off a nationwide campaign, “See me not my disease. Let’s talk about dementia.”

First and foremost, Heibein said it’s important for anyone who thinks there might be something wrong with themselves or a loved one to see a doctor as quickly as possible.

The early diagnosis has worked in his case, he said.

“There was a name for what I had, there was medication for what I had and I was hopeful,” Heibein said.

Across Canada more than 745,000 people suffer from dementia, with 3,200 or so estimated to call Thunder Bay home.

“That number is expected to double in the next 20 years,” said Allison Denton, executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Thunder Bay.

Denton said the impact both directly and indirectly.

“For every person with dementia, the impact can be seen through their family and friends and neighbours and co-workers,” she said. “So we estimate there are approximately 12 other people who are affected by that individual’s disease.”

Mayor Keith Hobbs on Wednesday helped Heibein raise an Alzheimer Society forget-me-not flag in front of city hall, launching Alzheimer’s Awareness month.

For more information about this month’s activities, phone 345-9556 or visit their website at

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