Murray says it's possible Gordie's dementia is vascular in nature. Gordie suffered from heart disease later in his life and required the implantation of a coronary stent about a decade ago.
“He's had a couple episodes of getting faint or passing out around that time,” Murray recalls. “It's possible he had a couple of mini-strokes that picked off some of the parts of his brain that you need to be able to retain short-term memory. That's my theory and what his family physician is thinking.”
Gordie takes Alzheimer's medicines Aricept and Namenda “just on the off-chance it would help,” Murray says.
“I feel very comfortable with his care,” he adds. “We don't want to do anything super-aggressive. We mostly just want to keep him comfortable and feeling like he's needed and wanted and has a role or a place.
“I lean towards being conservative and trying to maintain his dignity and his comfort.”
Gordie had episodes of forgetfulness about six years ago while caring for Colleen. The Howe children recognized the signs they'd previously seen in their mother.
Gordie was also tired and not looking after himself while caring for his wife, which made his condition worse. A program of regular physical activity has helped Gordie combat his dementia, says Murray.
“He can easily walk four miles on very hilly terrain without a problem,” he explains. “When he first came to us, he couldn't walk 100 yards up a slight incline without having to stop because of chest pains. It was a complete turnaround for him.”
While the long-term effects of concussions have been very much in the news lately, linking Gordie's condition to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may be a stretch.
Concussions weren't tracked when he played, so it is impossible to know how many he sustained. And Gordie didn't start showing signs of dementia until his late 70s.
“I don't think anybody can really answer that question,” Marty said in an earlier interview on the possibility of a connection to CTE.
“He went for so long without any symptoms whatsoever. You don't have to be an athlete or in contact sports to get dementia.”
After Colleen's death, the Howes were approached by the Toronto health organization Baycrest to put Gordie's face on a fundraising campaign for Alzheimer's.
Affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest specializes in mental diseases of the elderly. Baycrest is holding a conference on mild cognitive impairment March 26-28 in Toronto.
Half a million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada's website.
Gordie, accompanied by his son Marty, makes public appearances at an annual series of Scotiabank Pro-Am hockey tournaments across Canada. More than $16 million has been raised by the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer's.
Marty says the plan is for Gordie to help kick off the tournaments in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto this spring.
He will also attend a news conference Thursday afternoon in advance of a tribute in his honour at Friday's Vancouver Giants game.
Gordie has his photo taken with fans and signs autographs under Marty's watchful eye at these events. A speech isn't an option anymore. Fatigue tends to exacerbate Gordie's condition so Marty doesn't want his father feeling strained.
The reason Gordie keeps shaking hands and posing for photos is because he likes it and is stimulated by it, Marty says.
“He brings up the energy from someplace inside him to do better than he normally does,” Marty observes. “He really enjoys people. When he gets in public, it brings on his persona and kind of puffs his chest out a little bit.”
Marty says people are so thrilled to meet the Hockey Hall of Famer that they don't care if Gordie says much to them.
“If you see him now, obviously you can kind of tell he's not firing on all cylinders,” Marty says. “Most people see Gordie and they're just happy Gordie is talking to them.”
Gordie divides his time between the homes of his four children. He spends a lot of time in Connecticut with Marty or with Murray in Sylvania, Ohio. Gordie attended the Hockey Hall of Fame induction of his son Mark, the head scout for the Detroit Red Wings, last year in Toronto.
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