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Gordie Howe turns 85. Mr Hockey’s story can teach us all about dementia’s “long goodbye”

Gordie Howe waits for ceremonies honouring him at a Vancouver Giants home game on March 1st, 2013. (CP)

There's a great misconception out there.

You hear it in every joke and every wisecrack.

Gordie Howe's friends and family members know it, as do millions more. There's nothing funny about dementia. Nothing funny about Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Hockey celebrates his 85th birthday today, although it's arguable as to whether he really knows it, knows what the milestone means. Knows what a birthday is, even. His son, Mark, tells the Detroit Free Press that his father "is struggling. I think his memory might be down to two minutes, maybe five on a good day."

Gordie Howe is a once in a century athlete. There are arguments as to who is the greatest player in the history of hockey. Always, always, his name is included in the discussion before a minute or two has gone by. Beyond that, he may very well be the most respected player the game has ever known. I will never, ever forget the Gordie Howe moment I witnessed during a charity game in Barrie, Ontario, some thirty years ago. Howe wasn't playing, but he did make an appearance. As we sat in our dressing room during the first intermission, all energy and chatter, the din reached ear numbing levels.

Then, the door opened and in walked Mr. Hockey. Silence.

Howe then made the rounds in that room shaking the hand of every player there. As he did, no more than the odd whispered murmur could be heard the entire time. Each of us waiting for the moment we would actually meet Howe. Each of us remaining mostly silent as we hung on the words he might have for the next guy.

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A man that powerfully commanding is now reduced to losing the ability to revel in the memory of his legendary life.

Here's hoping that the immense regard we all hold for Gordie Howe can lead to an appetite for knowing more about dementia and Alzheimer's. If you love hockey, if you love Gordie Howe and if you wonder if you really know what the disease is all about, make this your time for exploration.

Dementia is much, much more than just those moments that people make their jokes about. If it were just that those afflicted with it only occasionally do cute and harmless little things like mistakenly putting their keys in the refrigerator or forgetting their son's name or putting on only one sock, fine.

But, dementia is a disease of grave consequences and immense sorrow. It is marching on us with increased force, as the Alzheimer Society of Canada reports that cases of dementia will double to over one million in the next 25 years.

Gordie Howe's dementia has, according to his son, Mark, proceeded to the intermediate stage. It is there where the family finds that the patriarch's memory is down to those precious two to five minutes. They can't leave him alone. His independence has evaporated and not because he's not physically able to do things. Indeed, Mark Howe tells the Free Press that his father is "still incredibly strong. He still has great endurance."

Gordie Howe, in 1955. (CP)

The disease may stall there for a time. But it will not cease. It is unpredictable only in that its rate of progression is what cannot be predicted. That it will progress is a given.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians know the cruel reality of that. Short term memory can be eroded, almost completely, as more and more of the afflicted person's brain deteriorates to the point where, heartbreakingly, the simplest of tasks cannot be completed. That includes bathing oneself, clothing oneself and controlling bodily functions.

Even speaking can - and often does - become a rapidly diminishing skill, with sentences emerging filled with words out of context and becoming entire conversations of gibberish.

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There can be personality changes. With that, comes confusion and fear and that can lead to lashing out.

Dementia is pernicious and its ravages are as catastrophic and cruel as diseases like cancer.

Gordie Howe has turned 85 years old. His once highly calculating and hockey-savvy mind is failing him. His still robust physicality will follow, if he lives long enough for the disease to start taking that, too.

That's another of the cruelties of a still largely misunderstood disease. And the reason it is known as "the long goodbye." Dementia slowly and insidiously robs its victims of independence and of memory. It tears away some of the fabric of personality itself. It takes what it takes and then seemingly stops taking. Then, after providing loved ones with the slightest shred of optimism that maybe - just maybe - the decline will end, it accelerates again and leaves them to deal with yet another level of grief.

It can take years. Often does. The goodbye is long and the goodbye is heartbreaking. Again and again.

Dementia is a killer. It is not a series of "senior moments," to be made light of. Alzheimer's disease shouldn't be the butt of a joke any more than cancer should.

Room enough for Gordie Howe to have two legacies. One, already cemented long ago, as one of the greatest hockey players to ever grace a sheet of ice.

The other could be, if we choose it to be, as the man who helped a nation begin to understand more fully, that the disease that is claiming his life slowly and awfully, is much more than one that leads to its victims forgetting what day it is.

If you love hockey and if you love Gordie Howe, you can pay him tribute by deciding to learn more about dementia and Alzheimer's. And fight it the way Mr. Hockey used to stand up to foes at the Olympia.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada's website can be found here. The American Alzheimer's Association website can be found here.

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