Whether it's the latest political scandal, the history of the Studebaker or how to make the best pasta sauce, Len Corey and Lucas Tersigni have no shortage of conversational topics. And, for the most part, the 92-year-old and 19-year-old Western student are pretty aligned in their thinking.
"At our first meeting, just instantly I thought he was the coolest man in the world," said Tersigni, who entered his third year this fall, studying International Relations. "He told me so many stories about how he used to work for Studebaker before it went under and about the Avro Arrow (Canadian-built delta-winged interceptor aircraft) and how the project was cancelled - things that I'm learning about in school, he can corroborate that; he lived through it. It's incredible."
For Corey, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago, and suffers from some short-term memory loss, it's a perfect match. "We almost flow together with our thinking, even though we're so many years apart, which is odd. Whether it's (U.S. president Donald) Trump, or whoever it is, we pretty much have it figured out - wait, we were wrong," he said, laughing.
The two were paired up as companions through the Alzheimer Society London & Middlesex (ASLM) about six months ago and immediately hit it off, forming a quick bond and sharing an even quicker repartee on their weekly visits.
"We go walking. We go talking. We mostly sit, but sometimes we don't. It's whatever I feel like," Corey said. "He just goes along with what I'm doing and doesn't argue with me. And, believe it or not, when you take him to the golf club, he wants a hot dog - can you imagine that?"
"It was actually a hamburger. I'm a little classier than that," corrected Tersigni, laughing.
And as much as they "fit like a glove," Corey would argue, in addition to questionable food tendencies, Tersigni has a few "annoying features."
"He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He has a sense of humour, but it's tucked underneath. You have to listen for a while, but that makes him kind of intriguing. And he also pays for my meal; now that's annoying. We've only ever had one argument - over food - and I lost. I went to pay the bill, but there wasn't any ... I threatened to call his parents," Corey said.
"I think though, if he aims right, he's going to be one of the smartest, advanced guys in this country. He's easily one of the smartest guys I've talked to in the longest time. He fits pretty well with what I'm up to and thinking. It's a perfect match as far as I'm concerned. I do think that he's really a winner."
"Coming from you, that means a lot to me," said Tersigni.
It's obvious the pair share a mutual admiration and truly enjoy their time together, noted Corey's wife, Lois.
"With Lucas, the barrier isn't there. Lucas acts as if Len is any other person. He says, 'He's my friend now.' It's a great boost for Len and for me, as a caregiver. He looks forward to their time together and I do too, since it's a bit of a break. I've heard all the stories a thousand times, but Lucas hasn't. He likes to hear Len's take on things and that's a bonus for Len, because not everyone wants to do that. Lucas soaks it up," she said. "It's a very positive experience and, this is just my perspective, but I think he's going to miss Lucas when he's away this summer."
According to ASLM Volunteer Services Coordinator Jennifer Hale, BA'96, there are numerous positive benefits for clients and volunteers alike when they participate in the Volunteer Companion Program.
"Dementia can be very isolating. Having a companion provides social interaction and cognitive stimulation. It keeps the mind active, can reduce agitation and anxiety. It helps reduce caregiver stress by allowing for respite time. It's a ripple effect, which can help stave off the effects of the disease and improve quality of life," she said. "For the volunteer, the experience provides an opportunity to give back and, often, the volunteer becomes an advocate for those with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias."
And as nearly half of the volunteers at ASLM are Western students, it can often provide an intergenerational perspective, said Hale.
For Tersigni, who began volunteering with ASLM as a learning experience, the relationship has evolved into a solid friendship he plans to maintain as long as possible.
"I don't even feel like I'm volunteering anymore. Len and I are friends. It's not work for me to come. I enjoy coming here. It's not what I expected because it's not volunteering for me anymore," he said. "And there's the sarcasm. He makes me laugh. I guess that's why I keep coming back."
"Dementia can be very isolating. Having a companion provides social interaction and cognitive stimulation."
When Laura Garcia was about 10 years old, her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Her first inkling something wasn't quite right was when he would keep phoning to tell her family the same pieces of information - over and over again.
At that age though, Garcia, BA'13, MSc'15, didn't fully grasp what it meant.
"We were living in Colombia at the time and then moved to Canada. It was probably three years before we saw him again. It was such a big difference in going back," she said. "He would recognize our voices if we talked to him on the phone, but he didn't recognize our faces because we had changed so much in those three years. He would recognize my mom's voice every time they talked on the phone - it was perfect and no problem - but, in person, he did not recall who she was."
Her grandfather lived about a decade with the disease.
This first-hand experience with Alzheimer's disease made Garcia want to work with the elderly and those suffering from similar ailments. She took an undergraduate degree in Psychology, followed by a Master's Degree in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, with a focus on health and aging, both at Western.
"I knew at some point I wanted to work with people with dementia, but really just with older people in general. I really like working with that generation. They are so wise. There is so much wisdom in them and there's always something to learn and they keep you grounded. You can have real conversations with them," said Garcia who currently works with the Alzheimer Society of Canada as a Knowledge Translation and Exchange Coordinator.
Her current role involves updating national Alzheimer Society literature and leading several research projects to develop new materials. Previously, she worked with the Alzheimer Society of Toronto doing public education and outreach, as well as translating English materials into Spanish.
According to Garcia, organizations like the Alzheimer Society play a key role in educating the public, especially since there's a widespread lack of knowledge and a wealth of misinformation in terms of the disease.
"There's a huge gap in knowledge. Some people don't even know there's no cure for it. And the confusion between the Alzheimer's and dementia - a lot of people don't understand they're quite different," she said.
Although Garcia admits you can't control fate, she argues the more knowledge you have, the more you can make simple lifestyle changes, including increased exercise, healthy eating and appropriate medication, that go a long way in preventing and halting the progression of the disease - as can being an advocate for your own health.
"We need to focus more on quality of life. The brain is something we don't fully understand; I don't know if we ever will. I'm not sure if a cure is ever going to happen. So, if we focus on prevention, if we can delay the onset and just focus on quality of life, that's the main thing we need to start doing."
Garcia began volunteering with the Alzheimer Society London & Middlesex (ASLM) during her Master's Degree, an opportunity that set her on the path to her current career.
"I've always loved volunteering and wanted something new. I helped with the groups and social activities they had at the office, but I also did one on one visits, which were great. It was a good relationship and taught me a lot. The patient was in the early stages, so she was very aware of what was happening," she said. "The experience I gained from my volunteer work with the ASLM helped me the most with my first job. I had never done any type of outreach before that."
For her, the most rewarding part of a career with the Alzheimer Society is the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the disease.
"It always goes back to my grandparents and talking to everyone we (at the Alzheimer Society) are involved with - from health-care professionals to caregivers and people living with dementia. Just little comments that say ‘Thank you for what you do, you've really helped us.' That's very enriching; I love what I do," Garcia said. "It's a hard field to be in. It's not easy to watch somebody progress or hear the stories that you do; it's very, very heartbreaking. But, just knowing the work I do is making a difference somehow, somewhere - it's a really nice feeling."
"He would recognize our voices if we talked to him on the phone, but he didn't recognize our faces because we had changed so much in those three years."
It's a robust partnership - one that continues to flourish after more than a decade of research and service.
Western has played an important role in the evolution of the Alzheimer Society London Middlesex (ASLM), and together, the two have established strong ties that continue to foster support and understanding of Alzheimer's in the community, said Betsy Little, former CEO of ASLM.
"In many ways, this has been a unique partnership between the university and our society - and for a number of reasons. Other chapters (of Alzheimer's societies in Canada) have connections to research institutions, but those connections are not as all-encompassing as ours," she noted.
Over the years, and particularly since its move from south London to Windermere Road about a decade ago, ASLM has partnered with and supported researchers at Western, offering funding, outreach and volunteer opportunities to members of the campus community working to understand dementia.
To date, ASLM's foundation has given more than $1 million to Western in support of Alzheimer's and dementia-related research. Shortly after the foundation was established, thanks in part to two large donations, part of its mandate emerged as one of research support, explained Little, who stepped down from her role earlier this year after 11 years.
"We wanted to give money to Western and went to a medical advisory committee to set this up. Our society is very fortunate to a have a foundation and we've supported Western entirely for more than 10 years. We don't give research money anywhere else - it's helped build a really great relationship," she noted.
"It was decided an award would to go to a scientist at Western, not to Alzheimer's Ontario or Alzheimer's Canada - there's research going on already through Alzheimer's Canada."
Originally named the Fish Award (after one of the bequests), ASLM's Premier Research Grant, valued at $100,000 over two years, supports research, personnel and infrastructure for Alzheimer's research at Western. The inaugural recipient was Clinical Neurological Sciences professor Elizabeth Finger, who is studying the effectiveness of oxytocin, a hormone and neuropeptide in the brain shown to play an important role in social behaviour and empathy, as a possible treatment for patients with frontotemporal dementia.
Biophysics professor Robert Bartha is the current holder of the award, looking to develop a sensitive test for early Alzheimer's disease using the most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment in Canada. If successful, his test will detect the disease at a time when the brain can still be repaired. Such a test would speed up the development and testing of new drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease.
"Elizabeth Finger's work is now in clinical trials, and she will be the first to say that without the support (from ASLM's research grant), that wouldn't have been possible," Little added.
"That's why basic research - and funding it - is so important. It may not lead where you think it will, but it leads somewhere and can lead to somewhere even better."
Through its foundation, ASLM also supports graduate students at Western working on Alzheimer's and dementia-related research, offering $15,000 to students working at the masters level and $30,000 over two years to students pursuing doctoral research in the field.
But the partnership between Western and ASLM goes far beyond research funding, Little stressed. It boils down to an established network of diverse individuals working together towards the same goal - understanding Alzheimer's and dementia and supporting those living with it within our community.
The broad spectrum of social and recreational programming offered through ASLM to clients in the community is largely staffed by Western students - some who give days, months and years of their time – even graduate and come back to visit - after connecting with clients and their families.
At the governance level, a connection with Western has always existed, Little added. ALSM and its foundation are overseen by boards that include Western researchers and faculty, ensuring work both entities aligns to best tackle the unknowns of dementia and best support those living with it.
"It's great London is able to have this foundation and this society that provides as much money as we do to a university that specializes in Alzheimer's research or dementia research. That, I think, is a win-win," she said.
Carol Walters, who took on the role of ASLM's CEO this summer, is looking to strengthen the society's partnership with Western by first defining the spectrum of dementia services available in the community and working to fill gaps that emerge.
"I'm hoping to form new partnerships with Western from an analytics perspective. We need to start to understand what the area looks like and look for outcome-based information. We provide good programs and services but we need to understand how that is trickling down and supporting the broader health-care system in and serving our clients," Walters said.
"If we become more proactive in the region, not just the society, then, in effect, it should have a more positive effect on health-care costs and the number of people needing space in long-term care homes should go down. Continued research is an imperative for that. A lot of the steps we are taking and a lot of the information we are able to share is coming out of the latest research," she continued.
"These are exciting times from a research perspective as it relates to dementia. There is a lot of new information coming out that is positive for individuals being able to be more proactive for their self-care."
If successful, Robert Bartha's test will detect the disease at a time when the brain can still be repaired.