At 83, Mr. Hockey is still in demand and on the move. Gordie Howe is about to embark on another series of fundraisers for research into dementia.
It's a personal cause. The disease killed his wife Colleen in 2009 and is beginning to affect him.
“He's a little bit worse than last year, but pretty close to about the same,” son Marty says. “He just loses a little bit more, grasping for words.
“The worst part of this disease is there's nothing you can do about it.”
The Howe family hasn't chased a diagnosis of exactly what kind of dementia Gordie has. They did that with Colleen, who died at 76 of Pick's disease. Pick's is a rare form of dementia marked by changes in mood, behaviour and personality, followed by memory loss similar to that experienced in Alzheimer's.
Gordie's dementia is currently mild and it's unclear how it will progress. One of his other sons Murray, a doctor who specializes in radiology, says his father's symptoms don't fit either Alzheimer's or Pick's.
“He has what we call mild cognitive impairment,” Murray says. “His brain power is not what it used to be. In terms of the prognosis and diagnosis, it's still wide open.
“He doesn't fall into what I would say is any particular category. He really doesn't seem to fall into the Alzheimer's dementia category because his disease is pretty stable.”
In an earlier interview with The Canadian Press, Marty said: “Gordie's isn't the Pick's disease like my mom had. It's some form of dementia.”
But at an event Thursday, after The Canadian Press story appeared, he pulled back from the word dementia.
“I probably used the word dementia, like, four or five times and probably shouldn't have,” Marty told reporters.
“Unfortunately, it's a little misleading, it got out there and it's not near as bad as everybody's trying to make it,” he added.
Murray, however, called the story “very well-written.” He also used the word dementia in conversations with The Canadian Press.
Marty appeared taken aback at the volume of reaction to the story, calling it “too much” and saying he had to recharge his phone after a three-hour car ride. He also feared news of Gordie's condition had amplified as the story spread.
He said the family had wanted to “get some of the information (on Gordie's condition) out to people because we've been keeping it quiet for quite a while.
“As time goes on, things get more evident. So we just figured it was time.”
Said Marty: “He suffers, basically, loss of words. I called Murray to finally get the right and proper terms. Cognitive impairment is his condition, which is caused from many different things, including the head injuries. It mostly comes on when he gets tired.”
Gordie did not speak to reporters at a Vancouver Giants event Thursday but socialized with club owners, players and guests and posed for team pictures. The WHL club is honouring him at a game Friday night.
Short-term memory loss, difficulty speaking and some confusion in the evening when the sun goes down are Gordie's symptoms. The latter, called “sundowning,” occurs in people with dementia although the cause is under debate.
“He's always worse in the evening,” Marty says. “It's like when the sun goes down, something flips the switch.”
But Gordie's personality hasn't changed and he continues to know who his family and friends are.
While his most noticeable deficit is his short-term memory, Murray says his father can still learn and retain some new information.
Gordie's stamina and power were legendary during his 33 seasons of pro hockey. Physically, he's doing well for a man about to turn 84 in March. His sons say Gordie likes to do household chores and go fishing, which is one of his favourite pastimes.
“He's still Mr. Hockey and that's what is so great because he's just such a pleasure to have around,” Murray says. “He'll wake up first thing in the morning and there's a bunch of leaves outside and he'll rake for three hours. He's so pleasant and upbeat.
“When he first started showing signs of memory loss, we were concerned it was Alzheimer's and it was just going to go downhill.”
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