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Dementia sufferer laces up to help fund research

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(Back from left to right) Rohnda Sandler, Pro-Am Co-Chair Joey Arfin, Pro-Am Co-Chair David Lewenberg, David Moore, Christian Mak, NHL Alumni Steve Thomas, Erica Howe, Ailish Forfar and Brendan Mak. (front left to right) Alexis Woloschuk, Megan Bozek, NHL Alumni Mike Krushelnyski and Robert Cohen. (Baycrest photo)

Susan Kendal’s earliest memories of her brother, Robert Cohen, are hockey-related.

In his younger days, Cohen would be on the ice for as many as seven games a week. As he got older, into his 60s, he cut back to four games a week, twice with his lifelong buddies and two pickup games.

As an executive in the marketing business, he’d do his best to include some sort of reference to hockey, or a hockey-related activity, in his campaigns.

Cohen and hockey were synonymous, Kendal said.

But that has changed dramatically. About 10 years ago, Cohen, now 64, started to exhibit worrying signs of forgetfulness. At times, he couldn’t remember common words or put together coherent sentences. Sometimes, he’d forget to follow through on promises he made to members of his family.

It was very much unlike him, but he resisted getting it checked out. A few years ago, when he went to hospital to have a heart condition treated, the family asked his doctors to look into his forgetfulness. That led to further evaluations, largely performed at the Baycrest Centre.

Unfortunately, the tests came back with bad news: Cohen was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s.

In recent months, his condition has worsened, even hampering his ability to play the game he loves.

Robert Cohen (Baycrest photo)

Nevertheless, Cohen will be front and centre at the Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer’s in Support of Baycrest, which runs from May 2-4.

The event, now in its 14th year, brings together more than 500 amateur players on 31 teams to raise money for Alzheimer’s research at Baycrest.

Players will gather on May 2 to draft one former NHLer per team, with the order of the draft depending the funds raised by each team.

Former Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, a Baycrest Foundation ambassador, headlines the list of participating NHL alumni, along with Darcy Tucker, Wendel Clark, Lanny McDonald, Rob Ray and others.

Among the 31 teams participating in the event is Rob’s Renegades, on which Cohen and his friends play.

The guys are more like a family than a team, Kendal said. Not only have they played together for the past 30 or 40 years, but as Cohen’s condition worsened, they were instrumental in helping him continue to enjoy the game he loves.

READ: ‘ANGEL’ SOUGHT TO FUND BAYCREST’S PROPOSED NEW POOL

In recent months, Cohen has needed help playing the game. His buddies pick him up and take him to the rink. They help him dress, making sure he doesn’t forget to include all his equipment, and point him in the right direction when he begins to skate the wrong way.

“They bust their butts to keep my brother in the game,” Kendal said. “They are like brothers, not just hockey players.”

Whether he’ll be able to play in the Pro-Am remains to be seen, but playing hockey for Baycrest has made a difference in his life, she added.

In January, when Baycrest held an outdoor event at Nathan Phillips Square to publicize the Pro-Am, Cohen wasn’t sure he could play. But with the help of his friends and family, he got on the ice and enjoyed it immensely.

“He came home happy, thrilled and proud. They made his year with the joy that was back in his life,” she said.

Cohen will be the focus of many activities during the tournament, said Josh Cooper, president and CEO of the Baycrest Foundation, the centre’s fundraising arm.

There will be a tribute to Cohen and his story will be told. What’s more, funds raised through the event will go to support Alzheimer’s research at the Rotman Research Institute. About $2 million has been raised this year, to go with the $34 million that has been raised at previous Pro-Ams, Cooper said.

The Rotman Research Institute employs 35 full-time researchers who look into various aspects of Alzeheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Their research examines the impact lifestyle can have on the condition, such as whether nutrition, exposure to music or learning languages can keep the brain functioning longer and delay dementia’s impact, Cooper said.

One aspect of the Rotman’s work includes an examination of the role concussions can have on dementia, something of particular interest to pro hockey players, he added.

Yet concussions did not play a role in Cohen’s dementia, Kendal said. Unfortunately, it was just bad luck.

Whatever the cause, Alzheimer’s is not going away. According to Cooper, “As the population ages, the number of people with dementia or cognitive impairment in Canada is expected to almost double to nearly 1.4 million by 2031.

“Funds raised through this tournament are vital in supporting Baycrest’s vision of a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfillment. The urgency to prevent and defeat dementia has reached an all-time high and so the need to invest heavily in care, research and education is more important than ever,” Cooper said.