69-year-old skydiver with Alzheimer’s wants to inspire others

Barb Raper lives life to the fullest, despite effects of brain disease

Alzheimer’s disease has stolen the words out of Barb Raper’s mouth. The retired school secretary stutters and stumbles as she struggles to speak a simple sentence.

But she has no problem getting this message across: She loves skydiving.

On her 69th birthday, Barb jumped out of an airplane with her best friend Dorothy. She completed an item that had been on her bucket since she was a child.

With a big smile, arms out beside her and her eyes closed, Barb said “Ahhh” with a tone of complete peace, relief and bliss. That’s how she remembers the first moments as she began a free fall towards earth last August.

Was she afraid?

“No, not at all … I just loved it,” she says.

“It’s the calmest I’ve ever seen my mom in her whole life,” says Deanne Matthews, Barb’s daughter.

For Barb’s family members, including her husband Terry, watching from the ground, the anxiety was considerably more intense.

Barb fulfilled a lifelong dream by skydiving and she hopes it inspires others to keep dreaming after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She wants people to know that the degenerative brain disease doesn’t mean one has to stop living life to its fullest.

She is being honoured by the Alzheimer Society of B.C. (ASBC) for its first-ever Abbotsford edition of the Investors Group Walk for Alzheimer’s on Sunday, May 6.

Cyndi McLeod, a support and education coordinator with ASBC, says she hopes Barb’s story is spread to lift the hopes of others with Alzheimer’s.

“What an inspiration, just for anybody,” she says.

Cyndi explains that Barb, like many Alzheimer’s patients, is fully present and aware and knows what she wants to say to those around her.

“What’s impacted in Barb’s brain is the ability to get those messages out,” she says.

Her family began noticing an occasional struggle to find the right words when she was in her early 60s. Her mother had also suffered from the disease and there was little surprise when the official diagnosis came.

Cyndi explains that the disease had likely began much longer before the symptoms became apparent and that much of the current research funded by ASBC is focusing on finding ways to catch it sooner so treatment can begin earlier.

While she has had to say goodbye to some favourite hobbies, such as reading books, Barb has remained active and optimistic. Terry and Barb go to the gym four times a week and, as she puts it, she’s “around, around, around” all the time.

“I mean, I’m not going to sit here all the time,” she says.

“Barbara likes to think that Alzheimer’s lives with her, she doesn’t live with it,” Terry says.

She’s even thinking about going skydiving again.

“I don’t know if I could take it,” her husband says, laughing.

The Abbotsford Investors Group Walk for Alzheimer’s is on Sunday, May 6 at Gardner Park. Registration begins at noon and the walk kicks off at 1 p.m.

Registration can also be done online at walkforalzheimers.ca

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Barb Raper sails through the skies, crossing off one of her bucket list items.

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