SOTW Standing Up to Alzheimer's in Their Own Way

John Mann has dedicated his life to art.

The stage is where the singer, songwriter and actor feels most comfortable in life.

As the lead singer of Spirit of the West, a multi-generational Canadian band with a list of accolades that would be the envy of many musicians, he has been sharing his art with the world for decades.

Now at 53 years old and diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, a form of dementia, Mann and his bandmates refuse to bow down to the disease.

“John lives to be on stage,” says Vince Ditrich, Spirit’s drummer and manager. “What we can do is do everything possible to give John the opportunity to be on stage for as long as he can be.”

In the moments following news of Mann’s diagnosis, which was just over a year ago, Ditrich says the band began brainstorming ideas to allow him to continue with his passion. There was little doubt the band would find a way to continue to perform and support Mann in the process.

“We named our kids after each other. I don’t know how you get any closer than that, “recalls Ditrich in a recent interview from Vancouver, where he and his bandmates call home “It took 30 seconds for us to start looking ahead.”

While Mann struggles with tasks such as packing, setting a table and writing, the band has found a way to help him perform the band’s music. Lyrics are read from an iPad rigged up and pedal-operated by bandmate Tobin Frank. Mann still interacts with fans, but fellow front man Geoffrey Kelly now handles much of the between song banter.

Ditrich acknowledges the high energy shows often associated with Spirit have changed to support Mann’s battle with Alzheimer’s. However, the audiences continue to display an admirable amount of support and compassion.

“I think if it was a secret, people might wonder what was going on when John forgets a lyric or something,” says Ditrich. “But people know and they are incredibly supportive. The love they have shown John and the band has been inspiring.”

Spirit is preparing to play the Regent Theatre in Oshawa on Saturday, November 7 as part of Imagine Festival, which is hosted by Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences (Ontario Shores). The mental health hospital hosts an annual concert featuring musicians and groups that have a personal connection with mental health.

“There is a huge stigma with Alzheimer’s and it was even there within me,” says Ditrich. “What I thought about the disease before and what I have experienced with John is much different.

“He might not be able to say what he wants to say to me or be able to set the table, but I can still share a meal with him. I can still hug him and feel the emotion. He’s still John.”

Spirit’s notoriety has already generated significant awareness for Alzheimer’s and mental illness as a whole. However, Ditrich and the band are more interested taking action against stigma than it is talking about it.

“All we can do is set the example of how people should hold their loved ones close and help them do what they love to do for as long as they can.”

Tickets to see Spirit of the West at the Regent Theatre on Saturday, November 7 are available at:

http://tickets.regenttheatre.ca/eventperformances.asp?evt=183