​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Arnold Wellman dances in wheelchair at dotsa bitove wellness academy
Arnold Wellman, centre, has a mild form of dementia. Above, he dances in his wheelchair at the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy. (Photo: UHN)​


Arnold Wellman had just begun his clinical psychology career when he met Mary Walsh, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (at the time, known as the Clark Institute).

The two soon married and began their life in Toronto.

"We've had a good 30 years together," said Mary. "He's just a genuinely kind, ethical and thoughtful person."

Signs of dementia

Arnold filled his life with many passions and hobbies – his camera collection, painting, fishing, and his interest in gem stones and jewellery.

When he reached his 60s, he eased into retirement continuing his clinical psychology practice— treating only a few patients.

That's when his early dementia began.

"His signs of dementia weren't obvious at first," said Mary. "Looking back, they began in his early sixties."

Arnold was eventually diagnosed, in his late sixties, with mild vascular dementia.

In the past years, Arnold has received various levels of care for his dementia and an unrelated stroke that left him in a wheelchair.

During a regular physiotherapy visit, his physiotherapist suggested he and Mary look into the newly launched Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy.

​“His signs of dementia weren’t obvious at first,” said Mary. “Looking back, they began in his early sixties.”​

Improving quality of life

The Wellness Academy, created jointly by UHN and York University, provides a day program for those living with mild to moderate dementia. It gives people a chance to live as full a life as possible given the life-changing challenges that dementia brings.

Arnold enrolled at the Wellness Academy in July, shortly after it opened, and attends three times a week.

"In terms of the interest and enjoyment of the Academy, I've been very, very happy," said Arnold, now 74 and aware of his dementia-related deficits. "I like the staff, support volunteers and group members"

Dancing in his wheelchair

He enjoys many of the activities and the instructors' approaches.

For example, Arnold explained that in a music session that day, the instructor played a song, provided its history, and then the group rehearsed and recorded it together.

Dance class is another of Arnold's favourite activities.

"The dance instructor gets me involved in doing tango while I'm in my wheelchair," said Arnold, who is an accomplished ballroom dancer. "It was impressive."

Gift from Bitove Family

The Wellness Academy was modeled after the Louis & Anne Green Centre for Memory and Wellness in Florida.

John Bitove was inspired to create a similar centre back home in Toronto because his wife, Dotsa Bitove, benefited immensely from the Florida program.

The Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy was established through a gift of $1.3 million from the Bitove Family.

"The Wellness Academy is a first-of-its kind in Canada and was created to establish relationships that enable personal expression and build community for people living with dementia," said Dr. Joy Richards, Vice President, Health Professions and Chief Nursing Executive, UHN.

The Wellness Academy is based on research about what makes daily life with dementia worth living. It provides a space that offers choice and flexibility for participants' engagement. Some of the participants, for example,  need to walk several times a day, others do not like to dance, some only want to paint and talk, some like to play bridge. 

Dignity respected

"The research tells us people with dementia want small intimate spaces that are home-like and provide choices and flexibility," said Dr. Gail Mitchell, York-UHN Academy. "The Wellness Academy provides this. The staff and instructors take a compassionate, relational approach and pay special attention to ensuring the participant's humanity and dignity are respected. "

This has been Arnold's experience.

"Sometimes it's difficult for me to eat with relatives or strangers. But, lunch with the staff and other participants is comfortable."

Mary has been in impressed with the Wellness Academy.

 "It's positive, friendly and stimulating," she said.

She has also seen some changes in Arnold.

"Arnold says he enjoys it and the stimulation has been good for him. He interacts socially, which is a big thing for him – he often doesn't have opportunities to do so."

The Bitove Family continues to support the Wellness Academy –the family has committed to help fundraise close to $1-million to ensure its future expansion and success.

"This is a beautiful, magical space that was inspired by my father's love for my mother," said Vonna Bitove, daughter of Dotsa and John Bitove.

For more information on a consultation, fees and registration, visit the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy website. [Editorial note: this link is no longer available.]

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