The friendly and generous nature of Pieter and his wife Leslie is evident immediately, before you can even get both feet in the door. “Thank you so much for coming! Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Even as a stranger, you feel like a welcome guest in their bungalow where they both live with one of their adult sons.
Their humble nature was apparent early when they were asked to talk about themselves, but get them talking about what made them fall for the other and you can feel the energy fill the room. “I was working for Canada Post and he came to work just for the summer. I guess about 1974? ’73 or ’74,” Leslie recalled. “It was immediate for me… She’s still working on it,” Pieter joked. They could have talked endlessly when asked what drew them to each other. “Everything about him. He was so different and interesting, and I don’t know how to explain it. I just thought he was really intelligent and he could talk about different things. There was something special there.”
“Still is,” Pieter charmingly interjected. “It just sort of worked. It fit. It was a good fit and it wasn’t a one-way thing. Neither of us are really verbose. Big gabbers or anything like that. But we certainly had that inclination and the aura that when we were together that we belonged together. I don’t think we went through – or at least I never went through – a period of doubt or anything like that. It was one of those situations where you know this is it…it always felt right and it still does.”
Although Pieter identifies most with being a horticulturist, he has held a variety of interesting jobs over his life. One of his first teaching jobs was teaching all the continuing education gardening courses for the Edmonton Public School Board, and he even had a TV show on gardening on Accesss TV. With two degrees, numerous careers, and the complexity of language used during conversation, the question isn’t how Pieter was gifted enough to navigate through multiple careers, but how he managed to balance everything, including raising a family. Leslie often worked evening shifts, and Pieter went to great lengths to perform well at his job and still be consistently supportive and available for his 3 children. “At that stage and at that age, you’re still full of vim and vigour, and disillusionment doesn’t add into the equation.” He looks back without regret, but doesn’t mind the slower pace nowadays, especially in light of his cognitive deficits. “A lot of people, once they get to their sixties…they’re not thinking about conquering the world anymore. They’re enjoying everyday mundane tasks and smiling while they’re doing it. I’m not sitting in the backyard and saying, ‘Well, I wish I got that third degree.’”
Traveling was a passion of theirs, and it was during a camping trip where she initially noticed there may have been some cognitive issues. “While we were driving we had this big long conversation. We were talking about tent trailers, where maybe we should rent a tent trailer and see how we like it. Then we got to our camp site and set up camp and did all these things, and then Pieter said, ‘I was just thinking maybe sometime we should rent a tent trailer,’ as if we hadn’t yet already had that whole conversation.”
At that stage and at that age, you’re still full of vim and vigour, and disillusionment doesn’t add into the equation.
“It took quite a while to get a diagnosis. I was worried about him at least 10 years ago, but the diagnosis was only a year ago in October. It was more of the small things, and it had to do with the memory. He would get mad if I questioned something that he had said or did, and normally he would never get mad at me or raise his voice.”
Reflecting honestly, Pieter recognized the deficits. “I think you’re right in pigeon-holing that; that there was no lack of insight, but it was just that refusal to accept it. In reality those were markers that should’ve or wherever could’ve been at a superficial level that was just, again, absorbed in the machismo of the male concept of denial, and it probably scared the crap out of me, too.”
Although diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia, Pieter continues to live a mostly functional and independent life at home, keeping himself busy around the house while Leslie goes to work. Pieter was always a wonderful husband and father first, and Alzheimer’s hasn’t changed that. He now even gets to experience the joys of being a grandfather. Their one son Graeme summarized it succinctly: “He was, and still is, the best!”
The hardest part? “Sometimes when we do things we have a lot of fun but he doesn’t remember it. And that’s hard for me because when you share something or do something together you kind of have that memory of it together, but [he doesn’t] make any new memories like that anymore. I’m not as positive of a person as he is. To me it’s a bit scary and overwhelming… because it’s different with every person. He certainly started to get it quite young, in his fifties; It has progressed slowly so in that way we’re lucky compared to some people.”
Leslie has tried to learn as much about dementia as she can during this journey, and has found a lot comfort in the support group meetings they’re attending at the Alzheimer’s Society. “It’s the kind of group where everybody helps everybody. There’s no strong egos or anything like that,” Pieter added.
Advice for others struggling? “What trumps everything is the fact that you can still be walking down the street, whistling with a smile on your face, even though you don’t know where the hell you are, or what tune you’re whistling, or even if you’ve got pants on.”
Background & Information
Along with memory, executive functioning is often affected early in Alzheimer’s Disease. Executive functioning involves things such as planning, problem solving, and decision making, as well as responding to feedback and possessing mental flexibility and inhibition.
Estimates of the incidence (disease frequency) of dementia vary across studies and depend heavily on age, as well as location. In general, the incidence of dementia doubles every 10 years after age 60 years, and it is rare before 60 years. People with a history of a first degree family member having dementia have a 10-30% increase in their risk of developing dementia. However, some studies find that if that family member got dementia later in life (over 85 years), there is no increased risk. Rare inherited forms of early-onset dementia account for less than 1% of cases. Despite several decades of research, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the heritability of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Diamond, Adele. Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology. 2013; 64: 135–168
Prince M, Bryce R, Albanese E, et al. The global prevalence of dementia: a systematic review and metaanalysis. Alzheimers Dement 2013; 9:63.
Ryman DC, Acosta-Baena N, Aisen PS, et al. Symptom onset in autosomal dominant Alzheimer disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neurology 2014; 83:253.
van Duijn CM, Clayton D, Chandra V, et al. Familial aggregation of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders: a collaborative re-analysis of case-control studies. Int J Epidemiol 1991; 20 Suppl 2:S13.