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Life with young onset dementia: What you need to know

Life with young onset dementia: What you need to know

What comes to mind when you think of a person with dementia? If you’re like most people, you picture an elderly person in the later stages of the disease.

But here’s the thing: dementia doesn’t just happen to older people. While age is still the biggest risk factor, people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s can also develop dementia.

We call this young onset dementia and it accounts for about 2-8% of all dementia cases. Right now, 16,000 Canadians under the age of 65 have dementia. A dementia diagnosis is difficult for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for people in their 40s or 50s.

Faye Forbes and Mary Beth Wighton

Faye Forbes (left) and Mary Beth Wighton (right) are both living with young onset dementia. Faye was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 58 and Mary Beth was diagnosed with probable frontotemporal dementia at age 45.

That’s what we recently learned from Mary Beth Wighton and Faye Forbes, who shared their experiences of living with young onset dementia during a webinar co-hosted by the Alzheimer Society of Canada, brainXchange and the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA).

Here are some of the biggest takeaways:

It’s a long road to diagnosis…but it’s worth it in the end

Diagnosing dementia can be a long and complicated process. For younger people, it’s even more complicated and frustrating. Medical professionals are often reluctant to diagnose dementia in someone so young, and it’s common for people with young onset dementia to be misdiagnosed with other conditions. In fact, Mary Beth and Faye were both initially diagnosed with depression.

“(The challenge) with young onset is that dementia is not something that they think about initially. If you’re a woman, the first thing they think about is menopause and depression and anxiety and panic and sleep disorders and all those kinds of things.” – Faye Forbes

“I had 12 different diagnoses before being told that I had probable frontotemporal (dementia)…they included: PTSD, major depression, forgetfulness, no short-term memory impairment, OCD, panic attacks, conversion disorder (what that means is that it’s all made up in my head). I was told that I was over-reporting memory complaints, I had frontal lobe problems, I had a pituitary cyst, I had REM sleep behaviour disorder, and ultimately that then resulted in a diagnosis of probable frontotemporal dementia.” – Mary Beth Wighton

Still, both women felt that getting a diagnosis was well worth it in the end:

“Once you have that diagnosis, it’s something that you can grab onto. There’s something there that you can fight against. That’s the way I looked at it and I wasn’t going to let it get me down. I wasn’t going to just sit there and roll over and let things happen (…) And I still look at things like that today.” – Faye Forbes

“When I think about that diagnosis, in one way, it was a really good thing, because then I could move forward with my life…As challenging as that looked, we could do it.” – Mary Beth Wighton

It’s an uphill battle to overcome stigma…but supportive family and friends make all the difference

People with dementia often feel excluded or treated differently because of their condition. For younger people with dementia in particular, there’s a tendency for others to dismiss the condition as a mental illness, or to simply not believe it because of the perception that dementia is just a disease of the “old.”

“I had all those years of people telling me I was messed up and it was all in my head, and…it was very, very hard on my family, because they were being told by other people, ‘she’s lazy,’ and ‘why don’t you leave her,’ and ‘she’s just nothing but problems,’ and so thankfully my partner and my daughter resisted all that and recognized that it was truly an issue.” – Mary Beth Wighton

We know that many people with dementia go on to live very fulfilling lives for quite some time, but even health-care professionals seem to offer little hope or support for life after diagnosis:

“(The neurologist) just looked at me and said, ‘You have dementia. You have Alzheimer’s. In five years, you’ll be in a nursing home.’ It was not a positive experience at all.” – Faye Forbes

“(My partner Dawn) said, ‘Oh, this is great, we have a diagnosis, what do we do now? Is there a pill, or…?’ And this is when the doctor said: ‘No, there’s no pill, there’s nothing that we can do at all,’ and you’ll have to basically ‘go home, get your affairs in order because you will die from this.’” – Mary Beth Wighton

Mary Beth turned to the internet for more information. There too, stigma was prevalent:

“(After diagnosis) I got home and I started to do all this research…again, it was all the doom and gloom and stigma and, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this,’ and ‘I’d be sexually assaulting people’…these were the things that were coming at me.” – Mary Beth Wighton

In spite of these challenges, both women have embraced living positively with dementia, bashing stereotypes and misconceptions along the way:

“I had started going back to school and studying for ordained ministry prior to all my symptoms starting. And I continued that…I was bound determined that I was going to achieve that goal regardless. And I did…I’m part of a team ministry in my parish and I love doing it.” – Faye Forbes

“I’m a fighter and I’m very stubborn… I just thought, ‘No, I can get around this, I can beat this, I can do something.’… (So) I started doing a lot of advocacy work. Over the last two years in particular, I’ve seen the ability of what happens when people (living with dementia) who are empowered as individuals join forces (…) to push things like policy forward.” – Mary Beth Wighton

[As part of her advocacy efforts, Mary Beth co-founded the Ontario Dementia Advisory Group (ODAG), a group composed of people living with dementia who work to influence policies, practices and people on issues that affect their lives. Learn more about ODAG at odag.ca.]

There’s a huge gap in services and supports

“I unfortunately ran into that brick wall where I was ineligible for just about everything because of my age.” – Faye Forbes

People with young onset dementia are often still working at the time of diagnosis, are physically fit, and may have dependent children or parents at home. They likely have major financial commitments like a mortgage or student loan. Yet, most social programs and services are designed for older people with dementia. They may not be of interest or the person may not feel comfortable in a seniors’ program. They might even be ineligible to join because of their age!

“I ran into a problem getting in to see the gerontologist because I wasn’t old enough to be part of the geriatric clinic.” – Faye Forbes

“I was too young to join (programs) because I was still in my 40s.” – Mary Beth Wighton

Faye and Mary Beth also describe the lack of a supportive health-care team.

“We know when someone gets a diagnosis for a different disease, like cancer, (…) a team of support will surround that person, like for instance a dietician, oncologist, spiritual advisor, financial advisor, etc. What happens when you get diagnosed with dementia in Canada? That does NOT happen. We are unlike any disease. We, for the most part, are literally told to just go home and die.” – Mary Beth Wighton

But there are many services that could be helpful for a person with young onset dementia that one might not even consider.

“One of the things that is important for a person with dementia is our diet (…) And yet I don’t know anyone (with dementia) who has access to a dietitian. That’s not part of our diagnosis process (…) Other things are occupational therapists (to help adapt your home to changing abilities) (…) Physiotherapist, for instance, is really important. People begin to, depending on the type of dementia, it could be more of a struggle for them to walk or to speak or to find those words. How come we don’t have a speech pathologist with us?” – Mary Beth Wighton

And let’s not forget about the family members.

“For my family, there wasn’t a lot of support. Through the Alzheimer Society my partner does have a social worker, but other than that, nothing.” – Mary Beth Wighton

Many are forced to give up working in their prime earning years

Many people with young onset dementia are still working when they’re diagnosed. Some may be able to continue working by modifying their job. Others will have to stop working immediately, which comes with major financial, social and psychological implications.

“At the age of 45, most people are looking to be at the top of their career or starting to head at the top of their career and get into that high income earning, and for me I had to take a long-term leave from my employment, and that then turned into having to leave my job.” – Mary Beth Wighton

“(At work) I really enjoyed interacting with people…I worked in a large office so I was constantly with people all day long. To stop that left a big void in my life.” – Faye Forbes

It’s a major financial blow

The financial repercussions of living with young onset dementia are very difficult. Eventually, a person has quit their job and may not be eligible for financial supports.

“There was definitely a drastic cut in our finances, I was fortunate to have private disability that we (still) get today, and I also get CPP as well…I applied for Canada Pension Plan even though I’m only 50 years old.” – Mary Beth Wighton

For Faye, being a stay-at-home mom made things especially hard:

“I was a stay-at-home mom for most of the years that my children were growing up, and when I did go back to work and then had to leave work, it was about three and a half years that I had worked, and when I applied for Canada Pension, in black and white, in the very fine, fine print, it says you have to work four out of the last six years. So I was ineligible for anything like that.” – Faye Forbes

Living on a disability pension can cut a person’s earning capacity forcing a person to make some tough decisions. Both Mary Beth and Faye had to sell their family homes.

“You start to make decisions…so we made decisions, for instance where we lived, so we decided to sell our house, we just started to think differently…‘how can we live without the stress of finances’. And so we were luckily able to do that and I think we’re in good shape. But, you know, it definitely hasn’t been easy.” – Mary Beth Wighton

Additional expenses like drug costs and fees for support services also come into play.

“When we’re talking about other support services like dieticians, physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers…depending on how (well) your health care system in your particular province is working…you might have to pay for those services. (But) because you’re on a financial restraint to start with, you can’t afford that.” – Faye Forbes


Fortunately, both Faye and Mary Beth have learned to overcome these challenges and live full lives with dementia. They offer the following advice for anyone diagnosed with young onset dementia:

  • Connect with your local Alzheimer Society.
  • Explore all of your financial support options. Talk to a financial advisor to find out what these are and how best to extend those options over a long period of time.
  • Consult a lawyer to get your legal affairs in order. How do you want to be cared for when you can’t care for yourself? What are your wishes? Set up Powers of Attorney so that financial and personal care decisions are made by someone that you trust when you’re no longer able to make them yourself.
  • Find out about work and government benefits.
  • Explore local, provincial, federal and online support programs.

“Just know that if you do have a diagnosis of dementia, you can live well. You can do it. That’s the main message.” – Mary Beth Wighton

Above: Faye Forbes, Lori Michaud (webinar contributor) and Mary Beth Wighton are living life to the fullest with their families, despite all being diagnosed with young onset dementia.


For more information, please see our page on Young onset dementia.

P.S.: If you have the time, we strongly encourage you to listen to the webinar and hear what Faye and Mary Beth have to say firsthand.

People like Margaret are more than just a number.

People like Margaret are more than just a number.

Did you know that of the 564,000 Canadians with dementia, 60% will go missing or become lost at some point? These men and women are more than just a number.

And so are you. You have the power to be the one who makes an impact.

By making a donation today, you can help fund dementia research initiatives and support vital programs for people with dementia and their families. With your support, we can help people like Margaret and her son David.

Here is Margaret’s story:

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What’s love got to do with Alzheimer’s? A lot

What’s love got to do with Alzheimer’s? A lot

By Alex Westman

Mr. and Mrs. Alex and Donna Westman

My wife Donna and I met when we were just teenagers—she was 18, I was 16. Despite our youth, we understood early on that we had a deep connection. It was an amazing thing, really, and still is. There was magic in her and she saw something in me. I had a reputation as a bit of a scrapper, but she soon took care of that.

These days, I’m almost respectable. I’m a three-term municipal councillor in the Township of Lucan Biddulph, Ontario, and a 30-year veteran of the fire department. She made me who I am, and all these years later, Donna is still the love of my life.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that the love we share is the armour we wear when things get tough. And in 2009, things got really tough.

Mr. and Mrs. Alex and Donna Westman

That was the year she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 47. I remember sitting beside her in the chair in the doctor’s office. I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I said, “we’ll get through this together.” And we have.

We’ve had help, of course. Donna’s sister Gale and our daughter Sara-Beth have been nothing short of amazing; their love for Donna shines through in everything they do for her.

My point, as I’m sure you are beginning to see, is that you can’t do this without love. This disease is big. It has teeth, and horns and claws. If we didn’t have love, this disease would destroy us both.

Now I don’t want you to think I live in some fantasy land. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve gone to marriage counselling. There were times we didn’t particularly like each other. But we always loved each other and we always knew we wanted to make it work.

Mr. and Mrs. Alex and Donna Westman

I remember vividly the spring following Donna’s diagnosis when we planted forget-me-not flowers in her garden. The garden has always been a special place where she tended to each plant as if it were the only one. The year before, we had planted daffodils for my parents who died of cancer. This spring, we wanted forget-me-nots for Donna.

When we finished, we stood back to admire our work. She put her head on my shoulder and I said, “It’s OK, sweetie. I’ll remember our life together for both of us.”

Mr. and Mrs. Alex and Donna Westman

Hope in the face of Alzheimer’s

Hope in the face of Alzheimer’s

One might think that having a disease with no cure wouldn’t leave a person with much hope to draw on. The truth is, if you’d asked me how I felt about the future after I was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my answer would have been far from ‘hopeful.’ Then, one day, that changed.

Read More Read More

Living well…right to the end

Living well…right to the end

May 7 – 13, 2017 is National Hospice Palliative Care Week. Mary Schulz, Director of Education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada discusses some of the misconceptions about palliative care and why it’s important to have conversations about end-of-life.

Read More Read More

You can be that one to make a difference

You can be that one to make a difference

Did you know that over 210,000 people in Ontario are living with dementia? That over 564,000 Canadians are affected by Alzheimer’s disease or dementia today? We all know, or know of, someone affected by this disease. They are our neighbours, our friends, our grandparents and our uncles. They are someone in our life, and they are more than just a number.

You can be that one to make a difference in the lives of those affected by dementia. By donating today, you can help fund research to find treatments, and even a cure, for this disease. You can help fund programs that support people with dementia and their caregivers, and help improve quality of life.

For people like Amir, your support means the world.

Here is his story:

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Driving with Dementia

Driving with Dementia

Follow us, as Elizabeth Murray tells the moving story of her mother’s battle with dementia. In this blog series, Murray explores every part of the experience of caring for someone with dementia, sharing her memories and insights from it all. Her words serve as a great reminder of the many ways dementia affects our lives, and the lives of our loved ones.”

Driving had always been an important part of my mother’s life. She loved to tell stories about her adventures as a young woman chauffeuring friends from her home in Campbellford to Peterborough, Ontario to watch the Petes play hockey, or taking a carload of women to Buffalo, New York, to shop.

After she was married, my father’s poor eyesight meant that my mother was the main driver in the household and her ability to drive assumed an even greater significance.

My mother was devastated when her doctor notified the Department of Motor Vehicles that she had dementia.  After her driver’s license was suspended, she refused to attend social gatherings and resented that she needed me to take her grocery shopping or to the drugstore.  Ordinary tasks became an ordeal for both of us. She soon became obsessed with the notion that her doctor had acted in bad faith by reporting her illness and she was determined to have her license reinstated.

One day, she told me that she would be able to drive again if she passed a standard road test. I knew that information wasn’t accurate but I agreed to take her to a Driver Licensing office for the test.

When we arrived, I sat at the back of the room and waited while my mother approached the front counter.  A clerk typed information into a computer and then gently shook her head.  She explained that there was a detailed process my mother would have to follow if she wanted to get her driver’s license back.

“But the doctor was just acting out of spite,” my mother protested.

By the next day, my mother was furious with me. According to her, just as the clerk was about to return her driver’s license, I held up a sign declaring that she had dementia. The clerk saw the sign and immediately withdrew the license. I was stunned.

At the time, I didn’t understand that driving a vehicle meant more to my mother than a way to maintain her independence. The ability to drive was an integral part of her identity and losing her license was another way that dementia was affecting the life she had long known.

People with dementia should be allowed to drive for as long as possible but when their ability is impeded and they pose a risk to themselves or others their license must be suspended. Contact your local Alzheimer Society to learn how you can support your loved one through this significant life change and help them stay connected with their community.

Written by:

Writer Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray
Retired lawyer and the author of Holding on to Mamie:  My Mother, Dementia and Me.
For more information about Elizabeth and her story visit www.holdingontomamie.ca.

The mirror of dementia

The mirror of dementia

I look in the mirror and what do I see?

I see me. That is me…the same ‘me’ I’ve always seen when I look in the mirror.

But wait – is it really the same ‘me’? Is this what others see? I look like me – or the ‘me’ I was.

You see, I have changed – not on the outside, not in who I am, not in what I believe; I haven’t changed in how I see the world.

You see, I’ve changed in how my mind works.

The words…the words I use, they don’t come easy; they become confused. That word I want to use – you know that word – it won’t come to me now.

Oh yes, there I am, there in the mirror. What did I come in here for? I don’t know. Well, I’m in the bathroom looking in the mirror…I must be in here for something.

Oh look, here is a hairbrush. That must be it – I must have come in to brush my hair.

But when I look in the mirror, my hair is already brushed. No, no, that is not what I’m in here for.

This disease is making me confused at times. But I’m still me when I look in the mirror.

No, wait – those aren’t my eyes. Those eyes I see looking back at me are tired; my eyes aren’t tired.

My eyes twinkle and are full of life. I am full of life.

Look, look in the mirror – that is me. The ‘me’ others see.

Look at my smile – there it is – yes, I am happy. I have a loving husband and a supportive family. Yes, I am happy.

But, wait…that smile is drooping…my smile doesn’t droop.

Is this a sign of that disease in my head…the one that is attacking my brain? The brain that does not always work the way I want it to…

Can others see theses signs, too?

Look in the mirror – this is me.

How long will I still be me? How long will I still see me?

How soon before I look in this mirror and the ‘me’ won’t be there?


© 2016 Phyllis Fehr

Phyllis is a person living with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia. She is a strong advocate for the rights and abilities of people with dementia at the local, national and international level. Read her full bio here: http://www.odag.ca/our-people.html