Memories of
the hills

Alzheimer's sufferer guides fell walkers

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Mountains are one of the last places you’d expect to find an Alzheimer’s sufferer. But when Sion Jair, a retired engineer from Ulverston in Cumbria, was diagnosed with the condition he vowed he would not be cowed.

Seven years ago he was told he had just three years to live due to pernicious anaemia. He lived – but four years ago he received the devastating diagnosis that he was fighting Alzheimer’s.

Rather than lie down Jair is fighting. In June last year he completed a gruelling 26-mile mountain marathon in which he scaled 12 Lake District peaks in less than 24 hours with his partner Wendy Kolbe. Now he has launched a charitable venture – Special Services 24/7 – to help rookie fell walkers make the most of the region’s stunning landscape.

Better than drugs

Jair is a regular on the fells and even since his diagnosis can be found on the Old Man of Coniston daily. The activity, he believes, helps him stave off the memory loss associated with the disease.

“I’ve been navigating in the mountains for 50 years and I continue to do so every day,” he said. “The skills and techniques I rely on are embedded in me. My dementia only prevents me from learning new things but doesn’t affect what I already know.”

Jair is not alone. There are around 850,000 people diagnosed with the condition in the UK today and by 2025 that figure is expected to stand at more than 1,000,000.

The Old Man’s summit is a climb of 800m. It is not one of the Lake District’s most intimidating mountains but to scale it every day, even for a healthy adult, is an achievement.

Special Services 24/7 will see Jair offering guided tours to walkers. It will operate on a not-for-profit basis, with proceeds raised donated to the Alzheimer’s Society and Mountain Rescue.

He said: “Half of what we receive will be used to support the ongoing running costs and the other half will be donated to our two chosen charities.

“I have built a small, dedicated team of professionals around me. Our aim is to help people maximise their enjoyment of walking in the Lake District whilst staying safe.

“We will teach them traditional map and compass techniques, together with skills that will help them to find their way whatever the conditions, without relying on technology, which can often fail when it’s needed most.”

Jair’s diagnosis in 2012 came as a surprise as his pernicious anaemia had masked some of the symptoms of the condition. He has front lobe degeneration, a rare form of dementia, caused when nerve cells in the brain die and tissue gradually shrinks, leading to changes in personality and difficulty understanding words and sentences.

His condition varies from day to day but typically he can have trouble remembering things and can be easily confused. Other problems include poor directional and spatial awareness.

But research suggests a healthy diet and exercise can help slow the effects of the condition. Jair has chosen to embrace the landscape, walking the paths he has walked hundreds of times to help keep his memories alive.

He said: “I can cope with my dementia so long as I stay physically active, and I know the Coniston fells like the back of my hand.”

He said he believed the exercise really does help to keep his mind healthy. “If I don’t do anything physical for a few days then I go to pot.

“They are trying to research all kinds of drugs but the medical staff say exercise is better than drugs and I’ve proved that.”

“I decided to launch Special Services 24/7 because I want to share my love of the mountains whilst also raising money for two very worthy causes.

“I’m also open to approaches from businesses who are interested in sponsoring the venture.”

Sue Swire, Alzheimer’s Society community fundraiser, said: “We’re delighted to have been chosen as a beneficiary of this exciting venture and wish it success.

“Sion has been a fabulous ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, raising money and awareness. Above all, he has shown that you can live well with dementia.”

But Jair isn’t looking for sympathy. He said: “I want to make people aware it’s not the end of everything. There’s still a lot you can do to keep your body and mind active.

“I don’t fear the future. I will keep active for as long as I can and make the most of the time I have left. If I were to die in these mountains, I’d die a happy man.”

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