“I didn’t meet John for a long time, but Bonnie was in almost the next door room in the care home, and she used to ramble in and out, so I’d take her and James downstairs for a hot chocolate and a coffee, and that went on for a while,” Nula says.
She had been struggling to cope with James, feeling helpless and falling into depression as a result of her situation, for years. “That’s the thing with caring for a dementia patient, it’s so draining,” she says. “It was unbearable. It almost killed me.”
Six months after James moved in, the care home organised a lunch for spouses of dementia patients, because they felt, understandably, that partners of patients likely needed more support than adult children. There, Nula finally met John, and quickly identified him as not only Bonnie’s husband, but one of the few people she could really talk to.
“It was like turning on the light, the moment he started talking, because he understood exactly what I was going through,” she says. “And that was so amazingly comforting.”
They began emailing, and continued for about a year, before John asked Nula to join him for dinner, “which wasn’t terribly successful”, and then a weekend in Vienna, “which was even less successful” – principally thanks to what Nula calls “The Big G”. Guilt.
“It was a difficult journey…” she begins to say, before John picks up. “We were meeting and enjoying each other’s company, but there were tensions there, because we each had a spouse, who was living, and slowly departing from us,” he says. “Right from the start, Nula said to me, ‘There are four of us in this relationship.’”
Later, an Admiral Nurse (who provides specialist dementia support for carers) gave John an invaluable pep talk: “He said, ‘‘What would you want for [Bonnie and James], if it was the other way around? To find happiness? And what would they want for you, if they knew what had happened to them?’”
John was helped by his three sons, as well as Bonnie’s two from a previous marriage. But Nula, who had no children and whose family mainly lived in Ireland, arguably struggled more.
“I think men are able to compartmentalise their lives,” she says, “whereas women tend to hold on to the past and to feelings. The Big G used to sit on my shoulder and say ‘How can you do this?’ My female emotions overwhelmed my logic, almost. Friends were saying, ‘You must get on, you must make a life, you must get out there, James won’t be back again.’ It’s true, but with this disease, the person dies before they have physically gone.”