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New pilot program launched in Whistler to fight dementia

Whistler Mature Action Community program seeks to lower the stigma around cognitive decline in resort’s growing senior population
A new Whistler pilot program aims to offer support to dementia patients and their caregivers in the resort.

A new pilot program seeks to connect Whistler’s seniors and reduce the stigma surrounding dementia.

Launched Oct. 21 by the Whistler Mature Action Community (MAC), the Making Connections program aims to help people with dementia and their caregivers by slowing cognitive decline and allowing them to socialize with others in the same situation, break through isolation barriers, and develop support networks. 

According to MAC director Charalyn Kriz, the response to the program’s first session was overwhelmingly positive.

“We were so surprised at the reception we got. It’s a much-needed program, and it was very touching to see their response; they were so grateful,” Kriz said. 

“They’re sort of in a desperate place, because in-home support is very expensive, and the caregivers are almost trapped taking care of their loved ones. So this provides an opportunity for socializing and meeting new people, meeting people in the same situation.” 

Every session begins with 45 minutes of gentle fitness led by an accredited fitness instructor, followed by a period of mind-stimulating games and activities and socializing over lunch. 

The program was sparked by Erika Durlacher, chair of the Whistler Alzheimer’s Walk Committee, whose husband Pierre had dementia for 10 years. Due to Whistler’s lack of facilities and programs, the couple had to make their way down to North Vancouver up to three times a week for treatments. 

In larger centres like the Lower Mainland, the Alzheimer’s Society runs the Minds in Motion program for people with early-stage dementia and their caregivers. Whistler did not have enough patients to warrant a local Minds in Motion program, so MAC, in partnership with the Sea to Sky United Way Better at Home program, has taken the initiative to implement its own program. 

MAC hopes to reduce the stigma around the issue while also fostering a sense of belonging. 

Cognitive decline is a relatively common problem among Canada’s growing senior population, and one surrounded by stigma, as many seniors don’t want to admit to experiencing it. 

In 2022, nearly 600,000 Canadians had dementia, a number that is rapidly rising. According to a study produced by the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the number of people with dementia will climb to just under 1 million by 2030. 

Demographically, Whistler is among the younger municipalities in the province. However, its senior population is rapidly growing. 

The wave of young people that moved to the resort in their 20s when it first opened in the 1970s is beginning to hit their 70s and 80s, resulting in a growing demand for services catering to seniors. 

The population of Whistlerites over 65 has doubled within the last five years, from 555 (6.3 per cent of the total population) to 1,265 (nine per cent). 

According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s senior population is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country. The 2021 census counted more than 861,000 people aged 85 and older, double the number observed in the 2001 Census, with this demographic growing by 12 per cent between 2016 and 2021. 

The pilot program will run every second Friday morning until Dec. 16, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Currently, the program is at capacity at its current location, and the organization is actively looking for a larger space for 2023 as well as more resources to allow the program to accommodate more participants. 

Those interested in joining in the new year can contact Kriz at [email protected].