P.E.I. students raise awareness about Alzheimer's and dementia with presentation, commercial

Students at a school in Georgetown, P.E.I., have turned what they've learned about Alzheimer's disease and dementia into a lesson of their own.

The students are guest presenters this week at an Alzheimer's awareness conference in Charlottetown. They're also featured in a new commercial created for this year's Alzheimer's Awareness Month. 

It is kind of hard sometimes when she doesn't remember you. — Laney King, Grade 5 student

Sheryll O'Hanley, Georgetown Elementary School's principal, was asked by the Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. to share a resource they've developed for elementary students.

It includes a storybook called What My Grandma Means to Say.

"With my own experience with Alzheimer's in my family, I jumped on the chance and it's just a perfect fit for Georgetown," O'Hanley said. 

"They're so rooted in family here and grandparents play a very big part in our students' lives so it was a no-brainer for me, I had to do it."

Family experience

O'Hanley's grandfather had Alzheimer's and, as a pre-teen, she and her family cared for their grandparents every winter.

"I remember feeling almost resentment as a child because we weren't really told why we were going," O'Hanley said.

"We didn't talk about Alzheimer's and I think, at that time, perhaps the adults didn't think that as children we could handle the conversation."

The book is told from the point of view of a young boy, who watches his grandmother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's and moving into a nursing home.

Rob LeClair/CBC

The story resonated for many of the students in Georgetown. Grade 5 student Laney King said one of her relatives has Alzheimer's.

"It is kind of hard sometimes when she doesn't remember you," she said.

"But we do visit her a lot so she remembers us more now."

Rob LeClair/CBC

Grade 6 student Patrick Collings said he has had similar experiences with one of his family members, who also has trouble remembering his name when he goes for visits.

"It was just kind of weird, but I didn't say anything and then I talked to my mom after we left and we talked about Alzheimer's."

The story also gave the students a better understanding of Alzheimer's and dementia.

"That Alzheimer's is not a contagious disease," said Grade 6 student Hannah Rafuse.

"You don't treat them differently just because they don't remember some stuff, because a lot of people don't remember stuff."

Rob LeClair/CBC

'Very touching'

After reading the book, the class took on another spin-off project: creating memory books that they shared with their grandparents. 

Rob LeClair/CBC

"It was really touching because so many of them were like, 'Wow! I didn't think you remembered that,'" O'Hanley said. 

Then, the grandparents shared memories of their grandchild.

"It was very touching," O'Hanley said. 

"One grandmother came up to me and she said, 'This is my biggest fear, is that I'm going to forget her.'"

Rob LeClair/CBC

The Alzheimer Society asked if they could come to the session with a camera and interview some of the students and grandparents.

That footage is now a new commercial created for this year's Alzheimer's Awareness Month. 

"It was very heartfelt," said Corrine Hendricken-Eldershaw, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of P.E.I.

"The ultimate goal is to have young people share their understanding when someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's," she said.

"Some of the messages that the students of Georgetown shared are really very important for us to hear."

Alzheimer Society of PEI

"I'm very proud of our students, I think they're going to be wonderful ambassadors for Alzheimer's," O'Hanley said. 

"I think this will be something that they probably remember, that they can take this information into later years and reflect on."

O'Hanley hopes more P.E.I. educators will take advantage of the information kit, which is available in 37 elementary school libraries across the Island.

"I think the resource is a fabulous way to start the conversation with students, and that conversation to happen as a family," O'Hanley said. 

"Because grandparents are feeling frustration and that nervousness already and they may not even develop Alzheimer's, but it is something that they're scared of."

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