Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell’s gift to accelerate research in dementia care at York University

Allan Carswell remembers vividly the moment he and his wife, Helen, started to fall in love.

The pair had known of each other through high school – she was interested in music, and he in math and science. But it wasn’t until he walked her home after a Halloween party in 1951 that Carswell thought of her as more than a classmate.

“I finally worked up the courage to phone her a week after that party to ask if she wanted to go out,” he recalled. “And she said yes!”

That was 68 years ago. The two fell in love, married, had three children, made significant scientific discoveries, pursued a multitude of philanthropic endeavours and built a successful business.

Carswell is a professor emeritus of physics who, while at York University, was instrumental in developing light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems, which use light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances. In 1974, he and Helen co-founded Optech Inc., a company that focused on developing laser-based survey systems. Operating out of their family home as the sole staff member for several years, it was Helen who oversaw the transition of Optech into a highly successful business with more than 300 staff. Together they built Optech into an international business, which developed LIDAR technologies that are now used around the world and in space. They also established the Carswell Family Foundation.

In that time together, the Carswells have overcome challenges and braved the odds, deepening their love and respect for one another. But there is one battle that Carswell and his wife have been fighting for 20 years, and it is one he knows they will not win.

About 20 years ago, Helen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her cognitive abilities began to decline.

“There came a time when we just had to accept it,” Carswell said. “We had to accept that Helen had an incurable disease and that there was nothing we could do.”

Over the years, the disease has continued to progress.

“Since 2012, Helen has been unable to stand, speak or do anything for herself,” Carswell said. “In recent years, we have had amazing support from the Alzheimer Society of York Region and that’s why establishing this partnership is so important to us.”

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton with Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell

On Sept. 17, in honour of Helen Carswell and World Alzheimer’s Month, York University and the Alzheimer Society of York Region announced a joint $2.26-million partnership to research Alzheimer’s and dementia care programs. Funded by the Carswell Family Foundation, this gift will be used to advance research into the efficacy of dementia day programs, respite services and various models of care as well as the benefits of integrating support for caregivers into the programming.

The partnership will enable York University to do the following:

  • establish the Helen Carswell Research Chair in Dementia Care in York University’s Faculty of Health (with an additional $1 million in matching funding from York University);
  • provide funding for graduate research fellowships in dementia care for master’s and doctoral students at York University; and
  • support a program of evaluation, research and knowledge dissemination that is led by the Chair in Dementia Care, working collaboratively with the Alzheimer Society of York Region.

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton thanked Carswell and his family for their important gift.

“This new partnership between York University and the Alzheimer Society of York Region will enable us to lead the way in dementia care research and its application,” said Lenton. “By collaborating with partners in the community, we are able to combine our strengths and expertise, greatly increasing the impact of our work. Importantly, the partnership also provides research opportunities and other types of experiential education for our students, enhancing innovation and better equipping them to serve our communities in the future.”

Loren Freid, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer Society of York Region, said his organization is excited that York University is establishing a Chair in Dementia Care.

“We hope this new partnership will further validate the good work that gets done in our programming and will help support future initiatives,” said Freid. “The research of an endowed Chair and graduate students will provide expertise in dementia care that can be shared across the province and across Canada.”


Members of the Carswell family gather with York University community members and representatives from the Alzheimer’s Society of York Region for the announcement about the partnership to advance research in dementia care and the establishment of the endowed Research Chair that will be named after Helen Carswell

For Carswell, the gift is a way to honour and celebrate Helen – a kindhearted woman, an entrepreneur in her own right and his loving partner for more than six decades.

Even though Helen isn’t always fully aware of what is happening, the pair still continue to celebrate milestones together.

“We’ve just celebrated the birth of our first great-grandchild,” said Carswell with a laugh. “We’re all so excited!”