John Suchet: 'My wife Bonnie has dementia and has moved on to a new life. So must I.'
Newscaster John Suchet talks movingly about the pain of moving his beloved wife with dementia into a care home.
John Suchet’s wife has left him. Their love-nest in Gascony has been sold and he’s giving up the London flat they shared for 20 years. The local charity shop window is so often full of their possessions that he has to walk on the other side of the road to sidestep painful memories.
“I can’t wait to go,” he says, grey-faced. “Bonnie has moved on. She has got a new life. She is in a new place with new people. Why am I clinging to memories?” He’s shredding documents, giving away furniture and divesting himself of the whole paraphernalia of married life – but this isn’t a normal marital break-up. As is well known, Bonnie has dementia. Last year, after months of doubt and despair, Suchet was forced to admit that she needed professional care and he led her into a residential home with the heavy-hearted pretence that they were going to a lovely hotel for the weekend. Now he’s in the final stage of separation: abandoning the places where they were happiest.
“The worst thing about this wretched disease is that you behave as if the person has died,” he says. “Yet I go and see her. She knows I am special and greets me with a hug and tears of joy. But does she know I am her husband? I am not going to ask. Does she know she has dementia? I don’t know, and I’m not going to ask.”
After they have been together for a couple of hours, talking nonsense, her habit is to walk off as though she is giving him permission to go. The other day, he made a mistake getting the lift and they came face to face again unexpectedly.
“When she saw me she made a funny face at me. I made one back. In the middle of pulling funny faces, the lift doors opened, she looked over my shoulder, turned and walked away. Didn’t say goodbye. This is the woman who made me promise, when I was a foreign reporter, that if the phone went in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t leave without waking her and giving her a hug. It broke my heart. But at the same time I thought: it’s not breaking her heart, and that’s good. By the time I reached the ground floor, I was in floods of tears.
“She has never once asked the staff about me when I have gone. Again, that breaks my heart and makes me happy. Every emotion has a flip side with dementia.”
Since he first went public about his wife’s illness in The Daily Telegraph early last year, Suchet has become, as he puts it, “the public face of dementia”, a role that is beginning to eclipse his other lives as journalist, television newscaster, author and Beethoven scholar. Last week, as president of Dementia UK, he launched the Admiral Nurse Academy to provide for more specialist dementia nurses throughout the country. His new book, My Bonnie, is the story of a blissful marriage, cross-cut with a raw commentary on the progress of his wife’s disease.
As he writes, she walks her restless walk, smiling at him and never asking what he is doing. His account pulses with anger at what is happening to them both. It’s the exhausted voice of carers everywhere – exasperation, loss, fear, frustrated love. There were times, he admits, when he lost control and seized her roughly, shouted at her and left the marks of his grip on her skin. The howl of guilt that follows is the sound of a man hurting the thing he loves. “I wanted to beat myself unconscious for my behaviour, my fear, my everything.”
But there are funny-sad episodes as well. Bonnie, now 69 and once so fashionable, long since lost her sense of dressing appropriately. One morning, after instructing her to stay in bed while he makes the morning tea, he returns to find her fully dressed. Bewildered, she agrees to take off the boots and the skirt and they sit up in bed sipping tea, he in his boxer shorts, she in a beret and cashmere sweater. He manages to show the worst dementia can do without compromising her dignity.
To a man like Suchet, passionate and openly amazed that he’d found the love of his life, the loss of physical intimacy was hard. As the disease advanced, Bonnie stopped using their familiar endearments – love, darling, sweetheart – and started to call him John. On one occasion, “Mr Suchet”. When he put his hand affectionately on her bottom, she responded: “Right, that is enough, John.” “Now that really is not my Bonnie,” he says. “She was becoming uncomfortable about intimacy. Given what had gone before, it was unbearable to think it could come to this.” There is no therapy for a wife who doesn’t know what a husband is.
To find she was no longer his confidante was even more isolating. They couldn’t share anxieties about her disease and deal with it together, because by the time he’d stopped explaining away her forgetfulness, it was too late: she was in a world of her own. “Her son, Hereward, said: 'The wiring in mum’s brain’s ------’. There is no better non-medical description.”
Some dementia patients become aggressive. Suchet counts Bonnie’s sweet-natured acquiescence as a blessing. This quality of acceptance, he says, was as true of her in health as in sickness. “She has never questioned anything I have done. When I got back after five weeks’ reporting in the Philippines [for which he won a Royal Television Society award in 1987], she didn’t ask me a single question. She took me by the hand and led me into the bedroom. She didn’t ask me anything, and I swear to you she didn’t need to. I knew I had the right woman and I wasn’t going to destabilise that in any way.”
They had been neighbours in Henley-on-Thames, both married with children. For a long time they behaved well. But the mutual attraction was intense and eventually they broke up their families to be together. He was 39 and she was 42. “It was truly a grande passion,” he says. “We had found each other. I never really thought of having an affair. We just wanted to be together for the rest of our lives and nothing was going to stop us. We shared everything. Ev-er-y-thing.”
Would he ever allow himself to form another attachment while his wife is alive? “The last time we spoke [15 months ago], I would probably have said to you: not in a million years. The truthful answer now is: I don’t know. You start thinking: if it were me with dementia, what would I want Bon to do?”
Suchet, 66, son of an obstetrician, is cynical about supposed new findings about dementia. “The only valid theory on dementia is that it is a lottery, a roll of the dice.”
Still stricken at having put his wife into a home, he endlessly rehearses the support he had. “Four professionals advised me she was ready to go into full-time care and I fought every one of them.” One expert tells him that he would have been justified in relinquishing his role as her carer six months earlier. Now she is settled, he can feel the calmness in her, and in himself.
In the latter stages of looking after his wife, Suchet felt close to having a stroke or a heart attack. “My biggest fear was who would look after her if I went. It is well known that carers die before the person they are looking after. I’ve always been convinced she will go on for ever, and I’ll keel over tomorrow afternoon.” His salvation, time and again, was his Admiral Nurse, Ian Weatherhead.
Suchet says he does not enjoy his new work as a dementia ambassador and his book, far from being cathartic, was “bloody hard”. He would rather have been touring European opera houses with Bonnie. As planned.
“I’ve had the best relationship a man could have,” he sums up. “I was lover to the most beautiful woman – beautiful in more senses than the physical. To want one woman and to live with her for 20 years and to have that love returned… I have nothing to complain of.”
Mr and Mrs Suchet, before, before.
Maestro Thompson's hand of God.
Who Knows Where The Time Goes?
(Thompson pictured with composer, Sandy Denny.)