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Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 Dementia

Television Presenter John Suchet has publicly declared that his much loved wife Bonnie is suffering from dementia. He says of her according to a report in the telegraph (17 02 09), ‘My Bonnie is gone: it’s as if she has died’

Notwithstanding, dementia is very high profiled in the news at the present, with such people as Terry Pratchett (the novelist campaigning), forcing it into the newsworthy domain.

In addition he adds “I cannot believe I am saying these words. But it will give you some idea of how cruel her illness is. If she had cancer rather than dementia we would still be intimate and we would be figuring out how to fight the bloody thing.

“If you’ve got cancer, it shows. People know. They talk about it. They share their fears. I can’t talk about it with her because she doesn’t know. We can’t sit down and say: ‘Damn this bloody disease’ and decide how we will get through. I find that one of the most difficult things of all.”

Arguably, for the past three years, the television presenter, author has kept his wife’s condition secret from all but family and close friends. Even now, her own ignorance of what is happening to her causes him great doubt about the rightness of his decision to go public. He fears that it may seem a betrayal or a discourtesy, “because I am not the one with the disease. It is my darling Bonnie who has the disease.” Suchet is only human after all so these feelings of guilt will not be entirely unexpected.

Dementiaa is undoutedly taking it’s toll on the couple. Dementia is slowly robbing him of his wife of more than 20 years. He explains, “I’ve gone from being a lover to a carer.”

The couple had been happily married for the last twenty-four years, They have always both been very busy people believing that the “the best is yet to be” and actually looked forward to old age because “we would be together without anything getting in the way of us”.

Mr Suchet, 64, said: “By and large, her morale is good. She’s happy. She smiles at me.

“I should be grateful because she’s co-operative most of the time.

“I promised myself after the diagnosis, ‘Right, John, you will be an understanding husband - you will love and cherish your wife.’

“Life isn’t that simple. Every now and then, you just explode.

“It’s a culmination of little things - dinner plates going straight back onto the shelf instead of going into the dishwasher or being wiped dry while they were still dirty.”

Suchet’s emotional journey is almost tangible, especially if you know the sufferer and carer alike. His wife described as ‘calmly and smiling through the eary stages of dementia’ has now lost the ability to relate to him as her husband.

The Bonnie he loves, he admits has gone he further adds that “the Bonnie I loved has actually gone. It’s as if she has died. Dementia has taken her.”

It did so by slow degrees. As always, its onset was masked by the small forgettings of normal ageing. The sign that it was something worse came four or five years ago, as they were at Stansted airport waiting for a flight to France, where they have a farmhouse in the Landes region. Bonnie had gone to the ladies only a few paces from where they were sitting but couldn’t find her way back to John. After a long and increasingly fretful wait, he was paged to go to the information desk. “Her face lit up with happiness when she saw me. I couldn’t be angry. When we got to the plane, I remember thinking: that should not have happened. Then I put it to the back of my mind.”

Later, on a trip to Atlanta to see one of her grandchildren, Bonnie passed out in a restaurant. Her head dropped and the pupils of her eyes rolled upwards. As she was taken to hospital on a stretcher, she came round. Tests revealed no heart attack, no stroke. “But again, it should not have happened.”

Mr Suchet has been able to air his distress and guilt by meeting regularly with an Admiral Nurse, who is a specialist nurse working with dementia sufferers but particularly their carers.

The nurse, Ian Weatherhead, said: “I first met John and Bonnie two years ago. At that time, he needed a release.

“There was frustration in trying to manage Bonnie’s behaviour, and also denial about Alzheimer’s disease, and confusion about what it meant.

“John comes to see me down at my office - and sometimes I see him at home, so I can monitor Bonnie and see what’s changed for her.

“I’ve yet to meet a carer who hasn’t shouted, sworn or got angry at the person they’re looking after - and then felt guilty. Families row. It’s a normal part of life.

“And yet people feel so bad about it when they’re caring for someone with dementia, because they’re exhibiting emotions to someone who can’t understand or comprehend what’s going on.

“John’s a great guy to work with - and being the journalist he is, he takes copious notes on everything we talk about.”

Notwithstanding Mr Suchet s taking part in a fundraising event in central London, in aid of For Dementia, the charity which funds Admiral Nurses.

He has access to the specialist help because he lives in a part of London where the NHS has paid for eight such nurses.

There are only about 70 Admiral Nurses in England, and one service in north Wales, in Flintshire. Scotland doesn’t yet have any.

Mr Suchet said: “There should be 70,000 of them.

Later on as he sits at his computer, Bonnie moves in and out of the room “watching me, never thinking to ask what all this furious typing is about. Every so often, she smiles at me and there is that beautiful face again.”

John Suchet supports the charity For Dementia and Admiral Nurses, specialist nurses who work with families living with dementia. Admiral Nursing Direct’s helpline is 0845 257 9406, or email direct@fordementia.org.uk. More information on Admiral Nurses and the “Uniting Carers for dementia” network is at www.fordementia.org.uk

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