Women of Peterborough working to heal minds

Imagine waking up one morning and feeling like your life is not your own. Confusion, embarrassment, sadness and worst of all the isolation. Your mind ravaged and reduced to a former shell of itself by a merciless disease. Loved ones become strangers and strangers become assailants to be feared. The world becomes an overwhelming blend of sensory experiences that leave your emotions feeling raw. This is what it is like to live your life with dementia.

An estimated 500,000 Canadians suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-related afflictions. Of that number, over three-quarters are women. Some research suggests that diabetes and high estrogen levels may be a risk factor for dementia. However, at the moment, the reason for the large percentage of women battling this disease is yet to be confirmed. Two women in Peterborough have recognized the plight of Canada’s growing senior community and began making strides towards easing their pain.

Dr. Jennifer Ingram is the president and principal investing physician at the Kawartha Memory Clinic. She began her career in geriatric medicine, but as she says dementia chose her and she found her calling in working to find a cure. She launched the Kawartha Memory Clinic in 2002, to provide both regular treatment and experimental ones to those willing to partake in the drug trials. She created a haven where patients could come and feel safe in a warm, caring environment where they attain care they would not have received otherwise.

Currently the only drugs available through OHIP are symptom modifying drugs; however, the drugs that are used in these trials are attacking the underlying cause of the problem. The theory behind Alzheimer’s is that our brains produce a protein that is a derivative of amaloid. The bodies of people with Alzheimer’s disease cannot dispose of this protein so they accumulate and cause plaque in the brain. The current thinking is that if these bits can be removed when they are just forming, it might make a difference in the progression of the disease. In the trials, an anti-body is administered just as a flu shot would be, except the anti-bodies are made in other humanized organisms.

Ingram also recognized there was a shortage of trained personnel with the proper knowledge to diagnose dementia. She then designed the Neuro-cognitive Assessment tool (NCA) to make the specific analysis of dementia patients more effective, swift and comprehensible. It is a package of tests that assess the function of certain parts of the brain that are often affected by dementia.

With her vivacious personality and her caring touch, Ingram has been able to achieve a lot. However, she does admit that more than just medicine is needed to create impactful  change in a dementia patients life.

“I find it very helpful for people to have outside activities that they can do with others that are supportive and I encourage all the families to find something for the patient to do that is outside of family. Partly because it gives the care giver relief and partly because it stimulates the brain. Art, music, singing, dancing, pottery… it does not matter what the activity is but activity done outside of the confines of the home is a positive.”

One savvy entrepreneur recognized this and decided to cater to this ignored niche market. After winning the third annual Bear’s Lair competition, Janet Howse used her winnings to drive Work of Art, an art supplies company that produces art kits specifically tailored to those impacted by dementia. The thermoform tray is shaped so as not to confuse the user into thinking it may be a food plate and the brush a fork.  Also images that would be recognizable to members of the target demographic are used such as a bike ridden by many members of that generation. The product has been extensively tested and is now ready for mass production although the initial cost of producing the first 1000 kits is considerably high – $25,000 to be exact. However, it is estimated that after the first batch, costs should reduce to a sustainable level. An Indiegogo campaign has been started to help finance the project.

Although Howse is starting up in the Canadian market, she is ambitious and intends to take over the North American market; especially the unpaid care giver demographic, which is estimated to be about 15 million people in North America. As viable as this growing market is, the corporate world has not paid much attention to it. Howse’s theory is that we are just playing catch up. As the developed world’s life expectancy increases this becomes more of an issue and eventually they will begin to pay attention and follow the money.

The money is definitely beginning to talk. The annual cost of dementia care is expected to rise from $15 billion in 2008, to $153 billion by 2038. As worrying as this may be, the financial cost is nothing in comparison to the pain of watching a loved one fade before your eyes. Women such as Howse and Ingram see cases like this on a daily basis. Hopefully their passion and dedication will eventually inspire communities to take a more supportive stance in the battle against dementia.