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New peaks for Alzheimer's mom

Elaine Wright, 50, plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with her sixteen-year-old son as a fundraiser for Alzheimer's.

Thursday, March 20, 2003
Don Harrison
The Province
Vancouver, British Columbia

Last year, Elaine Wright became the first Canadian afflicted with Alzheimer's disease to serve on a provincial Alzheimer's society board.

In September, the Vancouver single mother will attempt another first -- to become the first Alzheimer's patient to climb Africa's tallest peak.

"My son [Cameron, 16] and I are going to climb [5,893-metre] Kilimanjaro as part of our Alzheimer's annual fundraising activity. We're really excited about it."

Wright got her first warning signs of Alzheimer's in 2000 when she was 47 and had a high-powered job at Telus.

"I couldn't remember what floor to get off the elevator at," she said.

"At first it was turmoil, chaos. But as life settles down, it is important to remember to have a forward-looking plan," she said. "You need an attitude of sink or swim and I'm not going to sink -- I've still got a teenager."

When she finally got the correct diagnosis, Wright turned to a trio of medications known to help with early-stage Alzheimer's: Aricept, Reminyl and Exelon.

"Since I've been on the medications, it's made a huge difference," she said.

The pills cost about $15 a day, but unlike in other provinces west of Atlantic Canada, they're not covered by B.C.'s PharmaCare program.

Seniors' groups say the cost pushes many on fixed incomes further into dementia by forcing them to choose food over drugs.

"I really hope lobbying will provide people with access to those drugs, regardless of economic capability," said Wright. "It doesn't just affect one patient, but their family and community and us, as taxpayers. As soon as you institutionalize somebody, the cost increases exponentially."

University of B.C. professor Dr. Howard Feldman, who studies the 80 neurological conditions that can lead to dementia, says early-onset Alzheimer's can occur if there is family susceptibility or a faulty gene.

Of the 16,000 British Columbians diagnosed with dementia each year, "it's very rare to get a degenerative dementia [like Alzheimer's] at 47," Feldman said.

For Wright, the cause is not as important as enjoying the present.

"I can do the same film twice in a week and not realize it. About halfway through the second time, I go. 'I remember this' --?but it doesn't take the pleasure away."

Yoga, cycling, running and volunteering aid her memory by reducing stress and providing focus. Two appointment books help, but her best resource is optimism.

"People shouldn't give up hope just because they are diagnosed with it," she said. "You never really know what's going to come around the corner. If it's not dementia, it could be a truck.

"You've just got to have the best time you can and do the right thing to really have a good life."

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