© Calgary HeraldDementia stealing Ralph Klein’s voice; wife Colleen now in caregiver role
In Ralph and Colleen Klein's cosy Lakeview living room, sadness and tears mingle with occasional laughter as Colleen finally tells the full story of the ex-premier's failing health.

Colleen does almost all the talking, because Ralph can't. The quickest tongue in Canadian politics is being silenced by a progressive form of dementia.

After months of uncertainty - and long delays in seeing specialists - the Kleins learned last Friday that Ralph, 68, suffers from what's called "frontal temporal dementia, consistent with primary progressive aphasia."

To the oddly vacant man sitting beside me, that means extreme difficulty in recalling and comprehending words, as well as reading and writing. His speech, once fluid and lightning-fast, is now limited to short words and set phrases.

"Good, good," he says several times, when asked how he's doing.

Soon he announces "I'm going to work out," and heads off to the gym in a cab already ordered by Colleen. On doctor's orders, she has taken away his car keys.

To anyone who's known Klein, either as target or fan of his wit, a vital piece of him seems to be missing. The native intelligence still flickers in his eyes, but somehow it can't emerge.

To me, he looks desperately trapped in there. His most priceless native talent has been stolen away. It seems as bitterly unfair as Beethoven going deaf.

Increasingly, Klein is also confined to his home, where he spends a good deal of time sitting in his chair. Once a voracious reader, he can now only stay with a book or newspaper for 15 minutes. He awakens early, but often spends the first hours of the day watching TV in bed.

"He sleeps a lot during the day," Colleen says. "I know he's terribly bored. It's hard for him to find things to do. But last weekend our daughter had a brainstorm and we got him a laptop computer. He played cards on it for an hour - that was remarkable."

As premier, Klein was always good at admitting his failings, from the drinking and the vow to quit, to throwing a report in the direction of a legislature page girl.

But he didn't whine or complain, and he isn't starting now. His powerful sense of dignity, legacy of a tough Tuxedo childhood, survives intact. The most he'll say, when things seem to be sliding away, is "I don't feel so well today."

Premier from 1992 to 2006, Klein was for many years Canada's best-known provincial politician, famous for his many zingers.

When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty questioned Alberta's health-care plans, Klein said: "I'm no doctor, but I think Mr. McGuinty's got a case of premature speculation."

And then, in a move that mystified even Albertans, his own party gave him such a weak confidence vote on March 31, 2006, that he felt obliged to quit. He left office in December that year.

© Calgary HeraldRalph Klein with wife Colleen Klein
Later he was a consultant, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, D.C., and served the first term in the Ralph Klein journalism chair at Mount Royal University.

Even though Klein kept busy, his health was failing. His speech and memory began to weaken, and last year he was diagnosed with the smokers' lung condition emphysema.

At first Colleen thought his speech symptoms might be due to lack of oxygen. That faint hope vanished with the neurologist's report last Friday.

"We always felt there could be something else besides emphysema," she says. "I certainly had suspicions, but nothing had been confirmed before. Now we know, anyway.

"He's not going to talk to the media. He's incapable of that. We don't want that.

"But I'm talking about it now because I just want the general public to know the man they love has a condition . . ."

She trails off, beginning to cry, then continues with an allusion to her Metis heritage: "It's hard, but there's a reason the Great Spirit made me a strong woman."

Colleen says it took two years to find the specialist who identified Klein's condition, with many long waits for appointments and tests.

"He's being treated like everyone else in the system. I wouldn't want anybody to think what he's getting is preferential - it certainly is not."

She adds: "Also, I wouldn't like to have people thinking he had this condition when he was premier. It probably started about a year after. He was quite capable until well after the party told him to take a hike."

The rejection of Klein still rankles. "It was hurtful for him; we didn't talk about it much, but I saw it in his face. You don't go from 80 per cent to 50 per cent and do the happy dance."

Then she smiles and says, referring to Premier Ed Stelmach's looming departure, "Hey, what goes around comes around."

Colleen is Klein's sole caregiver. They spend their days and eat most meals at home - "and that's pretty good for a lady who doesn't like to cook."

Sometimes they go to the nearby Grey Eagle casino, where Ralph, an avid card player, likes to sit in for a few hands. One night a week, they have dinner with friends at the Legion.

Apart from that, there isn't much going on for Ralph or Colleen Klein.

The high-end consulting jobs and invitations to give national speeches have fallen away. So have friendships they thought were eternal. Colleen says they get virtually no calls from former or current MLAs or ministers.

"When you're gone, you're really gone," she says. "You can almost hear the doors slam. People coming up in politics should be very careful not to let their lives go completely. You've got to have something to go back to."

But she's ready to look after her husband at home until more intense care becomes essential; and with this condition, it will.

"My biggest concern is about him going into a deep depression because of the frustration. But I haven't seen any signs of that. It's almost as if he's so grateful I'm here to look after him - either that, or he thinks I'm the maid."

More laughter follows.

Then, the comfortably cluttered house, facing a freeway berm on the street where the Kleins have always lived, falls silent again.