Older man went to school to help fight Alzheimer’s, and now he has a degree:  ‘I’m living a full life’

An inspiring story of Ron Robert, a man who pursued a degree at King’s University College in London, Ontario, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago. The disease, for which there is currently no cure, affects close to 6 million people in the US alone and is expected to increase to 13 million by 2050. Robert believed that pursuing a course to keep his mind active could help him fight the disease, and last fall, he graduated from the university.

Robert’s convocation ceremony was a moment he would never forget, as he walked across the stage and received his diploma, he was cheered on by his fellow students. “When I went across the stage, and as I’m getting my diploma, the kids all stood up and yelled and clapped,” he recalled. “I had to hold back the tears. It was something else, just wonderful.” Robert believes that the regular mental challenges he went through during his studies may have helped slow the deterioration of his condition.

Before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Robert was a former radio broadcaster and journalist in Western Canada. He became a political advisor to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau but never got the chance to attend university. “I wanted to get a university education,” he said. “I knew I was going to be tested, and I knew it was long-term. Those two things made me decide university was the way to go.” Despite his condition worsening, Robert persevered and completed his degree.

It was not an easy journey for Robert to start studying again. In the first two years of classes, he had to “learn to learn again.” It was a challenge for him to remember names, dates, and places, even though he understood the facts. Sometimes during tests, when he was stuck, his teachers would say one or two keywords, “and that’s all I needed.” In addition to studying, Robert also built friendships with students who were much younger than him. “Sometimes they would come to me with their problems because I would look like the old grandfather on the campus, I guess, and they felt comfortable speaking to me,” he said.

Robert’s achievement is a testament to the fact that people with disabilities like Alzheimer’s are not wholly incapable. Jeff Preston, one of his professors, said he is “thrilled” by Robert’s achievement. “I think Ron is the living embodiment of the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, or perhaps, don’t assume someone cannot [do something] simply because of a diagnosis,” said Preston.

“We have this perception that people with disabilities like Alzheimer’s are wholly incapable. I think what Ron has shown is that all sorts of people can succeed in a university classroom when provided with the right environment and supports to nurture success.”