People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: On Joyce Fairbairn, Alzheimer’s, and the human condition

Years ago, my grandfather would fly from Toronto to Thunder Bay once a year to visit my mom and to take his driver’s test. He was over 80 and knew that he couldn’t pass the test if he did it at home. None of us ever thought to tell him he was a menace on the roads. When he became so poorly co-ordinated that the Thunder Bay testers would no longer pass him, my grandfather — then pushing 90 — finally stopped driving.

His quality of life tumbled, he became more dependent on friends and relatives, and his health finally failed. The loss of independence was almost impossible for him to bear.

One of my elderly great-uncles faced similar troubles. He could almost look after himself in his early 80s. Almost. But sometimes he’d forget he had pots on the stove. He’d fall asleep in a chair while smoking. And he’d forget to do basic things like pay bills.

So what did the rest of the family do? Well, we did what millions of other Canadians do in similar circumstances: we tried to make it possible for him to live independently, then, when thing got worse, we suggested he go into a nursing home. But he didn’t want to go until we suggested he do it for the winter, then see what happened.

I knew for a couple of years that Senator Joyce Fairbairn was having problems. I interviewed her in the summer of 2009 for my book on wartime press censorship. She had been close to Tommy Shoyama, the federal mandarin who had been a young Japanese-Canadian newspaper editor during the Second World War. She gave me a few good anecdotes and was generous with her time.

I had lunch with her months later, and the signs of trouble were fairly obvious. When the book came out last year, I saw her again. She seemed forgetful, repeated herself, and didn’t recognize people she had known for years. It was pretty obvious that her Senate staffers were looking after her rather than providing office support.

What else could they do? What can anyone do in the same circumstances when an active, strong-willed person starts to lose their faculties?

People who are showing early signs of dementia and elderly people developing physical problems don’t want to hear your opinion on their health. They know that independence, once given up, is almost never reclaimed. Unless you’re prepared for a nasty fight, you can’t make someone go into a nursing home.

Fairbairn is a senator. She’s a member of the Privy Council, having held cabinet rank under Jean Chrétien. She was Pierre Trudeau’s media strategist. Before that, she was a top reporter for important news agencies. She is a widow. She has no children. So who was going to tell her it was time to go?

No one leapt forward. Not on the Hill, anyway. Finally, a niece now living in Africa got a psychiatric evaluation, set Fairbarn up with long-term care in Lethbridge, and made it clear she wasn’t coming back to Ottawa.

Fairbairn’s diminished capacity has become a partisan issue. It shouldn’t. The real moral of this sad story is that Alzheimer’s is a dreadful condition that slowly robs people of their lives. In its early stages, friends, family, and colleagues will try to ignore the symptoms, make accommodations, try to get past the bad days and pray that good days last.

No one wants to get into a nasty fight with a loved one or a friend who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. We put these kinds of confrontations off for another day and hope someone else ends up doing what we see as dirty work.

Eventually, someone did it for Fairbairn. She’s now effectively retired.

As for her Senate colleagues in both parties and her staffers, I believe they did the same thing that so many of us do in the same circumstances. And I really can’t fault them for it.