As a young model for Eaton’s catalogues, Claire Gourley always looked like a million bucks. She still does. Coiffed, stylishly dressed and with impeccable social graces, she’s so elegant and graceful that initially you might not notice two things about her. First, she was born without a right hand. Second, she’s in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Claire, 82, lives in the Reminiscence neighbourhood of Thorne Mill on Steeles in Thornhill, Ontario. All residents in that secure 30-suite section of the seniors’ building have Alzheimer’s or another memory impairment. Claire doesn’t remember where she went to school (she was the youngest person to be admitted to the University of Toronto, at age 14), what career she had (she was a social worker with the Children’s Aid Society), or particulars of her family life (she’s a widow with three sons), but she can recount in great detail the first time her parents put her in a ballet class to help boost her selfesteem. “The other girls said, ‘What’s wrong with your hand?’” Claire recalls. “I went home and cried. But soon the teachers were asking me if I would help teach the younger children. It was wonderful!”
Claire’s years of modelling and dance recitals set the stage for a lifelong appreciation of fitness— especially good posture. “I hate to see people like this,” she says, demonstrating by slumping in her chair. With infectious enthusiasm, she often tries to gently motivate other residents to sit up straight or take part in activities. “Some of them don’t like it, though,” she says, laughing, “so I have to be careful!” Limber and supple, she excels at Wii bowling, mimics the steps on TV’s “Dancing With The Stars,” and does full leg extensions during the group exercise classes.
Although Claire is a whiz at word games, she increasingly has to search for words to express herself and requires reminders to go to meals and activities. As her needs increase, so will the level of care, as the facility can accommodate a wide range of needs, from independent living to hospice care. And Claire’s loved ones appreciate not only the luxurious surroundings and stimulating programs available to her, but the support offered to families, including information sessions and speakers brought in by the Alzheimer Society of Canada and monthly support groups.