One of Canada’s greatest journalists is losing his battle with Alzheimer’s

Richard Gwyn was a renowned author and commentator for more than half a century. Then, suddenly, his mind began to deteriorate
By Steve Paikin - Published on June 17, 2019
Richard Gwyn and Steve Paikin
Richard Gwyn and the author pictured at the Dunfield Retirement Residence, in midtown Toronto.

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For more than half a century, Richard Gwyn was one of Canada’s greatest authors and journalists. As a columnist at the Toronto Star, he was the go-to guy on both federal politics and Canadian history.

Astonishingly, he achieved his greatest success and influence in his late 70s, when he penned a definitive two-volume biography of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. But he entered the literary scene back in 1965 with The Shape of Scandal, an account of a crisis during the Lester B. Pearson government. And, in 1980, he published The Northern Magus, then the best book on Pierre Trudeau and his relationship with Canadians.

From 1994 to 2006, I saw Richard nearly every week; he was a regular part of the foreign-affairs panel on TVO’s Studio 2, where he appeared alongside Janice Stein and Eric Margolis. That trio was so popular that TVO created a spinoff show for them called Diplomatic Immunity; it lasted seven years and gave Richard and company another platform for their insights on the world.

All of which is to say: Richard and I have known each other very well for a long time.

I visited Richard, now 85, a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t know me. And the Richard I knew no longer exists. Richard is fighting Alzheimer’s disease, and the disease is winning. In fact, it has pretty much won.

About five years ago, Richard started to behave erratically. He occasionally got violent. He was in the midst of writing another book but came to the harsh realization that he just couldn’t finish it. He returned the advance to the publisher and accepted that the life he’d once known would soon end.

A few years back, he began to visit the clinic at the Toronto Memory Program. It offers a battery of tests and coping skills for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Occasionally, Richard’s sense of humour would re-emerge. During a test that required him to answer 30 rapid-fire questions, Richard was asked, “What day is it?”

His reply: “Who cares?” That was the old Richard coming out.

I spoke to Richard around that time because I wanted to invite him to appear on The Agenda. He declined, which wasn’t like him: he’d always loved doing TV. Then he told me that he had Alzheimer’s and just didn’t trust that he’d be able to make it through the program without getting disoriented. He wasn’t going to risk it.

A few years ago, he was asked to give a speech at Toronto’s famous Granite Club. Normally a wonderful speaker who could mix his prepared text with asides and ad libs, Richard startled his audience by opening with: “I’m reading my speech from notes because I have Alzheimer’s, and I can’t speak extemporaneously, as I used to.”

His wife, Carol Bishop, also an author, was with him and saw how hard that had been for Richard to reveal.

“He’s a very brave man,” she told me last week, when we got together to discuss her husband’s circumstances.

The couple realized that things were only going to get worse, so Carol contacted her local Community Care Access Centre in hopes of getting Richard on a list for long-term care. But when a case worker gave him the once-over, she concluded that “Richard wasn’t incompetent enough,” Carol recalls.

“He’s still functioning, so I can’t put him on a list,” Carol was told. Carol pointed out that Richard was deteriorating — but apparently not fast enough.

“Then, a few weeks later, at a later visit, I made the error of being honest and said he was violent,” Carol says. “They told me he needed to be in a behavioural unit of a long-term-care facility, but the wait-lists to get in were extremely long. She told me to call the police and have them take him to the psych ward at Sunnybrook and that they’d find somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area to take him.”

Carol pauses. “Am I going to do that?” she says. “No.”

Richard continued to lose his faculties. He told Carol, “It’s not my fault. It’s nothing I did.” Carol, who’d lost her father to ALS at 86, tried to soothe him. “Of course, it’s not your fault,” she told her husband. “It’s no one’s fault.” But Richard was getting increasingly furious, because he knew that he was losing the thing he needed most in life: his ability to think.

“Richard isn’t a golfer,” Carol tells me. “He never had kids. He lives in his head. And, now, he couldn’t. He’d have nothing to do. He’d pretend to read.”

Richard and Carol were forced to sell their house in downtown Toronto and move into a North York condo, a place with 24/7 security where everything could be on one floor. But, eventually, that proved to be insufficient to accommodate Richard’s problems.

“He’d get out at night,” Carol says. “He’d wander off. I’d get a call from the front desk saying, ‘Mrs. Gwyn, Richard is on the fifth floor knocking on all the doors.’”

Last October, Carol discovered the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, a care centre that Richard could visit twice a week, giving Carol — who had essentially gone underground to care for her husband — some respite. And, two months after that, the couple took their annual trip to Barbados.

“It had been part of our regular routine for 10 years, so I thought it would work,” Carol explains.

It didn’t. Richard descended into “a complete delirium,” Carol says. When a flight attendant told him to put on his seatbelt, he gave her arm a hard shove. And the trip did not go well from there.

From time to time, however, the old Richard would come out. And Carol would joke to him, “We’re a really good couple. You like being taken care of, and I like taking care of people.”

Even amid the sadness, there were moments of levity. During one testing session, in which Richard was asked whether he knew how to vacuum or to load a dishwasher, Carol told the tester, “He’s an English gentleman. He couldn’t cook an egg. He’s never done any of those things!”

But things inevitably got worse. In February, on one of the coldest days of the year, Richard left the care centre and started walking. Police and paramedics were called. He’d begun to hallucinate, and Carol realized, she tells me, “I couldn’t handle him anymore.”

It was at this point that Carol began looking at private facilities, since the wait-lists for publicly funded long-term-care homes were endless. After another visit from the case worker — which included “a humiliating barrage of questions to Richard,” Carol says — he was deemed eligible to go on a wait-list for a public facility.

“I’m still working to actually get him on that list,” Carol says, exasperated.

With no public option yet available to her, Carol settled on the Dunfield Retirement Residence, a private facility in midtown Toronto. In April, accompanied by a woman who specializes in helping to move seniors into new surroundings, Carol moved Richard into the residence. His room was well stocked with familiar items. Staff told Carol, “The sooner you leave, the better. Come back in a few days.”

Turned out, the transition went just fine. Richard adjusted to his new setting quite well.

Carol visits regularly. She calls to check up on Richard. And she feels guilty as hell. “It’s horrible to admit it, but I have to be honest — I’m getting a bit of my life back.” Since Richard moved out, Carol has finished one book and started another.

She insists that her husband still knows her, if only sort of. Richard was married to Sandra Gwyn for 42 years, until her death, in 2000. Now, he confuses his first wife with his second, recounting to Carol things that he’d actually done with Sandra.

Two weeks ago, with Carol’s permission, I went to visit Richard. As much as I’d like to think that he knew me, I don’t think he did. He was in a perfectly amiable mood, but nothing that came out of his mouth made any sense at all. I quickly realized that any conversation between us would consist of Richard talking gibberish and me just trying to go with it. So that’s what we did.

I showed him some pictures on my phone, which he seemed to enjoy. Then I took a selfie of the two of us. When Richard saw the image, he pointed to himself and asked, “Who’s that?”

“It’s you, Richard,” I responded.

“No, that’s not me. That’s an old man. I’m much younger than that.”

Is it possible that, in his own mind, Richard’s internal clock stopped 10 or 20 years ago? Who knows?

Richard seems to be well cared for at the Dunfield, but such facilities are available to very few Canadians. It costs $10,000 a month to house Richard there. The country’s best health columnist, André Picard, of the Globe and Mail, recently wrote a piece entitled “Bedlam over beds: We can no longer ignore our long-term-care crisis.”

In it, he notes that “the clientele is increasingly elderly and frail. The average age is 85. Three in every five patients in long-term care now have dementia; one in four suffers from severe depression, and one in four live with chronic pain. Three in four need help with common activities of daily living such as toileting, bathing and eating. They need constant care and intense care … We have not prepared ourselves, individually or collectively, to pay the costs of care in our so-called golden years.”

Were it not for his brain, Richard Gwyn would be a healthy 85-year-old man: he’s physically trim and walks under his own steam. He seems happy in his new surroundings. There’s every reason to believe that he could live for many more years.

I’ll be sure to visit Richard again. Next time, I’ll bring some pictures from his days at TVO. Maybe that will jog something in his brain and cause him to remember his connection to that place and to me.

But what does Carol think of the man she married in 2005?

“That guy died a long time ago,” she says.

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