Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senator's disease exposes failures

Alzheimer's strikes tireless worker

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OTTAWA -- It's easy to forget sometimes MPs and senators who make up the characters on Parliament Hill are more than just caricatures.

Occasionally, there is a stark reminder of their humanity.

Such as when a popular and hard-working senator is suddenly considered unfit to care for herself.

Joyce Fairbairn, 73, hasn't been in the Senate since last spring. She will officially retire Jan. 18.

After more than 25 years in the upper chamber, her exit is not coming in the happiest of ways.

Fairbairn has Alzheimer's disease. Last winter, her physician declared her legally incompetent but she stayed in her role for many months.

Most of her colleagues were aware there was a problem.

Fairbairn was forgetting things, asking more questions, not herself.

But she was still, according to many who worked with her during the last year, informed and capable of understanding much of what went on.

But during the summer, she went downhill fast. In August, her niece wrote to Senate leaders to inform them Fairbairn wouldn't be able to return.

Immediately it was questioned why she had been allowed to stay on at all.

It was clear, understanding of dementia and the tools and procedures for handling people who tragically develop it, are lacking even in Canada's Parliament.

Fairbairn broke ground for women like me. She was one of the first women in the parliamentary press gallery, including for a time as a parliamentary reporter for this newspaper as part of FP Publications' parliamentary bureau. She worked on the Hill for more than half a century, as a journalist, a political aide and a senator. She served as a senior adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for 14 years. She was appointed to the Senate in 1984.

Her tenure here lived out past 10 different prime ministers.

She made causes such as the Paralympics and literacy her reason for being and was always a loud champion for her hometown of Lethbridge, Alta., and all of southern Alberta.

Described by colleagues on both sides of the Senate as hard-working and a champion of people with disabilities, it is somewhat ironic that her career's end is marked with questions about how to handle her disability.

She deserved nothing more than to retire from the Senate with dignity and accolades. Instead, her exit is marked with questions about whether the Liberal leadership handled the situation fairly, whether a senator who had been declared incompetent should have been allowed to keep voting, when it becomes absolutely necessary for someone to say she has to stop working.

The photo on Fairbairn's official biography on the Senate website is of a much younger woman with a brilliant smile.

That she could not retire from Parliament with absolute dignity will always be a stark reminder of how we in Canada are failing our elders.

It is a wake-up call that we must do more to address issues of dementia and aging now.

Dementia already affects more than half a million Canadians. Within 25 years, that number is expected to more than double as our population ages.

Sometimes it takes a case such as that of Joyce Fairbairn to wake us up and take action to address an issue.

If Fairbairn's illness is the marker to finally lead this country to a national strategy for dementia and aging, she will end her career as it began -- breaking ground to make the lives of those that come behind her just a little bit easier.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2012 B5

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