PRIVATE LIFE : 'It is no use being bitter about what's happened'

A husband describes his struggle to cope when his much-loved wife fell victim to Alzheimer's disease She sits with a book open at the same page for half an hour, unable to take it in. The short-term memory has gone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The well-ordered life of Phil Bridgman, a former car design draughtsman, changed for ever when his wife, Meryl, was found to be suffering from Alzheimer's at the age of 59.

It was our daughter, Julie, who first noticed. Her mother kept returning from the shops with lots of small change because she could not work out the cost of things and paid for everything with banknotes. Meryl had been so shrewd and I had always left the housekeeping to her because she was so much better with money than me.

Our doctor sent her for a brain scan, which revealed Alzheimer's. He didn't tell us directly; he felt it was kinder to say the memory part of her brain was much older than normal.

She started doing odd things like putting on two skirts or making the tea in the kettle. So I made an appointment with the doctor to ask him if she had Alzheimer's, and he said yes.

Meryl and I first met when she worked in Woolworth's. I used to chat her up over the counter and meet her later at the youth club. She was always happy-go-lucky, a kind, caring person. We had our arguments like all couples, but we had a really great marriage.

Our lives were wrapped up in our two children, the house and our garden, or we just went for drives in the country. Many people might think it boring, but we were happy and contented.

Then came 1989, which was a terrible year for us. Our son, Stephen, was left alone with three young children when his wife died from complications following chickenpox and Meryl became ill shortly afterwards.

I'd taken voluntary redundancy and I didn't look for another job so that I could care for her. Meryl didn't know what was wrong with her and I have never told her.

During the next 12 months, she became frustrated and aggressive as her condition deteriorated. She kept changing, like Jekyll and Hyde - angry with me one moment and nice the next.

She wanted to go on holiday the following August, so we booked a week at Weston-super-Mare, where we had many holidays when the children were little. But she wanted to go home one night just after we had gone out for a drink. She told me to get out of the car and telephone her husband. She thought I was a complete stranger and called me all the names under the sun.

We drove straight back home. She wanted to go to bed with her clothes on and, when I tried to argue, she threatened to call her parents. She thought they were sleeping in the next room even though they had been dead for years.

Next morning, she got angry with me again and hit me with the telephone directory. I had to call the doctor to give her a sedative. I kept wondering why this had happened to us and had to remind myself it was not really Meryl speaking.

She started having a lot of physical illness and used to refuse food. I had to follow her round the house trying to feed her using a syringe without the needle. Her brother said I deserved a medal as big as a dustbin lid, but I didn't see it that way. I did it because I loved her just as I always had done.

I struggled on looking after her until last year when she collapsed after we returned from a drive to a country park; the doctor told me she would need long-term nursing care. She was in hospital for a few weeks, then the health authority and social services arranged for her to live in a really nice nursing home about a mile from our house.

I felt I was letting her down. I also felt guilty because it was such a relief not to work so hard any more just to look after her. She has been there for 12 months now and has settled in very well. I visit her three or four times a week and at least I can just enjoy being with her rather than working to care for her all the time.

We go for walks together in the garden and a couple of times I have taken her in a wheelchair to visit her sister, who lives nearby. I am not sure whether she knows me, and I can't have a proper conversation with her. She always gives me a look and a smile when she sees me, but then she is a very affectionate person.

It is no use being bitter about what has happened. I have learnt to accept Meryl as she is and to make the most of it. She is still my wife and I still love her.

Interview by CHRIS MOWBRAY

'I couldn't have her - I have two young children, I work'

Jane Tinker describes the despair she feels watching her mother's condition deteriorate, and the guilt about where she will end her days

My mum has always been such a "good" person, a "nice" person. I cannot remember her ever saying a bad word about another soul. It was irritating at times. She had a miserable marriage to my father for more than 30 years and she bore it all in silence, sometimes a tearful silence. They are still together. She talked about leaving once, but at some point an unspoken pact seemed to develop between them; they would see old age out together and make it as bearable as possible.

I have often wondered how much the strain of that marriage, and the struggle of bringing up children within it, deadened her emotions. I can only remember her getting angry with any of us once - when my sister used the f-word. I cannot remember her ever telling any of us that she loved us, although we never questioned that she did; I cannot remember her ever being really excited about anything or laughing uncontrollably. It would shock her to learn that I have never felt very close to her.

Married at 17, three children by the time she was 25 and then a succession of fairly menial jobs to help stretch the budget, she was in her mid-thirties when she decided to train as a psychiatric nurse. Within a few years she was promoted to sister, declining offers to apply for a nursing officer's post. I do not think her confidence stretched that far.

Finances looked up. My parents bought their own house. They had regular holidays, a car each, all the trappings of a comfortable existence. She could afford to have her hair done once a week. At last, she seemed to be getting something back.

Then, during the last year of her working life, she started to forget things, to do daft things. She was senior night sister at the hospital and she would come home in the morning with a jangling bunch of keys in her bag and go to bed. My father would get a call from the hospital and have to rush the keys back to them. She would chop up mushrooms, and then throw them with the peelings into the pot, or turn the gas on and forget to light it. She suddenly seemed to find it difficult to cope with anything new or to follow simple instructions.

It has been a long time coming, several years, but now it is serious. She has Alzheimer's disease and I feel so sad. What has it all been for? It seems so unfair.

She still knows us. It is not that bad yet, but it is accelerating rapidly now. She cannot write her name any more. She sits with a book open at the same page for half an hour, unable to take it in, the short-term memory gone. She stands endlessly in the middle of a room, doing nothing. My father goes into the bathroom before bed to see what is keeping her and she says, "I don't know what to do." She often does not know which utensils to use at the meal table.

She can hardly get a sentence out without forgetting what she was trying to say. But if you are patient with her, she is still coherent enough to question. A part of her brain still functions which says, "Why me? After nursing people like this, how did it happen to me?" These insights are rare, but they make it all the more unbearable to watch. She gets depressed and cries a lot; a symptom of the disease, I understand. During one particularly low period, she told me she felt upside-down.

My father is in his late seventies and coping. He is more than coping. He is looking after her as unselfishly as she ever looked after the family. He worries about her, expresses his difficulty in keeping his patience with her, but he never complains. Despite having trouble with his knee, which means he is often hobbling about with a walking stick, he has so far refused help available through the GP. But there will come a time. I would guess within a year or so he is not going to be able to cope any more. What happens then?

I sat in a pub recently, telling a friend about my mother. I found myself saying, "I couldn't have her." I have two young children; I do not have room in the house; I work - from home, admittedly. I have a busy life, and she cannot be left for more than 20 minutes. In the next breath I was saying: "If she goes in a home on her own, she'll die." It was a shock when I chewed over the implication of my words later.

My two sisters have busy lives as well, and careers. They also have husbands who would probably move out if my mother moved in; the strain would be too much. Judgement day is looming and I have a feeling we ain't gonna pass the test.

She used to joke that if she ever got to the stage where she could no longer look after herself, we were to pull the plug, disconnect the drip, bump her off with her self-esteem intact. She did not want to be a burden. What do you say now, Mum? Time is running out. The trouble is, it's out of your hands. The onus is on us.

The Alzheimer's Disease Society can be contacted at Gordon House, 10 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1PH (0171-306 0606).

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