When Stephanie Fauquier crosses the finish line of her 10th triathlon this summer, her mother will be close to her heart.
The Toronto resident has two photos of her mother, renowned Canadian surgeon Dr. Robin McLeod, sewn inside the T-shirt she has worn across the country on her 500-kilometer fundraising trip.
“She’s the reason I do this,” Fauquier said.
McLeod was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago. She became one of approximately 750,000 Canadians living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia; many of which require 24-hour care.
Inspired by her mother’s experience, Fauquier launched the Career Initiative with Steph to raise awareness about the neurodegenerative disease, which slowly destroys memory, cognition, and eventually the ability to perform simple tasks.
In the last four months, Fauquier has raced in nine triathlons in nine provinces, starting May 28 with the Victoria Half Ironman in BC. Fauquier finished that 113-kilometer triathlon with a broken finger.
So far, Fauquier says he has raised more than $300,000. His 10th and final race is a homecoming in Ontario. He will buckle up one last time on Sunday for the Barrelman Half Ironman in Niagara Falls.
Even before her diagnosis, Fauquier said her mother began showing memory loss and aphasia, a disorder that affects the ability to communicate.
“This is not an Ontario problem, it’s a Canada-wide problem,” he said. “What better way to bring attention to a disease that is really terrible and horrifying than to run across the country?”
SEE | This triathlete sewed photos of her mother in her suit to keep it close to her heart
Funds raised to support ongoing research
Fauquier says the money will be donated to the University of Toronto, where his mother used to work. But specifically the university’s Tanz Center for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases, which is a world leader in understanding degenerative brain diseases.
The funds will go toward creating an endowment fund, named in McLeod’s honor, that will support an Alzheimer’s research chair, said the center’s director, neuroscientist Dr. Graham Collingridge.
“We can recruit a young scientist with new techniques, new ideas and support them throughout their career,” he said.
Philanthropic donations and fundraising activities like Fauquier’s are essential to medical research, Collingridge says, because acquiring government grants and awards is highly competitive.
“Unfortunately, governments never provide enough money,” he said.
Collingridge’s own research focuses on understanding the basic biology of Alzheimer’s disease and how the hundreds of trillions of synapses in people’s brains function effectively, helping to store information and memories.
“In Alzheimer’s, that process goes wrong,” Collingridge said.
Number of Canadians living with illnesses ‘increasingly’, researcher says
Collingridge says that while a small number of Canadian Alzheimer’s cases are familial, most are a “complex interaction” between genetic and environmental factors.
Research shows that exercise, a healthy diet, moderate alcohol consumption, abstaining from smoking, low stress and the absence of depression can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, he said.
“If you just take the subset of people who are really taking care of their health… the risk of Alzheimer’s is actually going down,” Collingridge said.
However, in general it is not. New diagnoses are outpacing population growth due to Canada’s aging population, Collingridge said, with age being the number one risk factor.
The number of Canadians living with the disease is increasing at an alarming rate, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, and it is projected that by 2030 there will be almost one million dementia patients, most of them women.
The growing number of patients will come at a huge cost to the health system, Collingridge said. “Unless we can do something and do it quickly, the numbers will continue to rise.”
While medications can only slow the disease, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and Collingridge said we are probably a long way from acquiring one.
The family hopes to reduce the stigma
Fauquier says her father John sometimes describes her mother’s diagnosis as “watching loved ones die in slow motion.”
He is 80 years old, he said, but remains his mother’s primary caregiver.
“Every day, my dad says he loves my mom more and more,” Fauquier said.
“It really affects the whole family,” Fauquier said. But he hopes that as more Canadians learn about Alzheimer’s, the stigma and shame that often accompanies the disease will decrease.
Still, he says he wants to honor his mother, a woman who, despite her busy professional accomplishments, took the red-eye flight to be with her children when they woke up.
“She has given me the ability to be brave and pursue my goals and dreams,” Fauquier said.