Frances Dunscombe was devoted to her husband Ralph and cared for him at home when he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Here Frances, 84, explains how she coped – and reveals the surprising new direction her life has now taken
Losing one’s partner at any time is traumatic, but after 53 years of marriage, it is that much harder to adjust. It took me at least two years to reach a point where I felt able to cope with the loneliness and all the different problems which accompany living alone.
Ralph had been a very special person, both as a husband, father and grandfather. Upon reflection, his personality started to change very gradually and almost imperceptibly about ten years before his death. Grumpiness, which was alien to his character, and depression crept into his behaviour, whilst physically he had enjoyed excellent health. When his colleagues in the City – he was a stockbroker – began to notice a change in him and commented on it, I chose to ignore them. Of course, I hadn’t recognised these symptoms as warnings of what was to come. Soon after he retired those signs became more apparent. I was in denial and ignorant of the likely progression into dementia. In fact, it was very much later and into the more severe stage of his regression that I learned he had experienced many mini strokes, thus leading to vascular dementia.
The first time I became aware of the seriousness of his condition was when, having crossed over the kitchen to help himself to more wine, he slid down the side of the work surface to the floor. It was a dramatic moment and I rang for an ambulance. Even at that stage, the medics diagnosed it as a fit. However, it later became obvious that he had suffered a stroke; this one being more serious than those before. Tests revealed that he had had a series of mini strokes (transient ischaemic attacks) and diagnosed with vascular dementia. I was never told that but read it on one of his medical reports.
I had a particularly uncomfortable experience when I had to witness him being asked the simplest questions at a Mini Mental State Examination. I wanted the examiner to respect the fact that Ralph had been a Captain in the army, was at D-Day and had played rugby at school and at the ‘Old Boys’. Poor Ralph! It was truly emotional for me.
Needless to say, the following years were a struggle. My family helped as much as was possible but I feared burdening them too much. After all, my son-in-law’s father is on his way to suffering in a similar manner.
The hardest part of caring, I found, was coping with Ralph’s incontinence. Of course, it’s not only despairing for the carer, but involves a terrible loss of dignity, once again, for the patient.
Like many careers, I worry that I made mistakes. I’m full of regrets. I did show my impatience sometimes and often said the wrong things.
I remember one day feeling so fed up that I sat at the kitchen table and cried. Ralph looked at me and, realising I was upset, said, ‘would you like me to drive you to your mother’s?’ I was incredulous, ‘Ralph, my mother has been dead for years,’ I said. I should have said, ‘oh what a lovely idea, we’ll go next week,’ which would have made him feel much more valued, but I thought that reminding him of the facts was helpful, when it really wasn’t.’
Eventually, thanks to an Admiral Nurse and John Suchet’s best-selling memoirs My Bonnie I learnt to communicate more effectively and went from knowing nothing about dementia to being very well informed.
As the dementia journey progressed, Ralph’s love of classical music soon became an incredibly important part of his day. He had classical music on all day, he particularly loved Brahms, Mozart and Handel. Once he was bedridden, I put a radio at his bedside switched on permanently. I did say ‘no’ to him having it on through the night as well because it would have kept me awake. Now I feel bad about that, maybe I could have trained myself to sleep with it on, for his sake?
For the last two years of Ralph’s life, I received help from the social services. Carers started to come in once a day and quickly increased their visits to twice a day, and then three times a day. But life remained a struggle. I always cooked Ralph nice meals and made sure he was eating enough, although it did take longer and longer. Eventually I used to take a glass of wine upstairs with me when I was feeding him because it was such a slow process. I was often up during the night, too. In fact, I can’t remember many nights when I slept through. Consequently, I was getting a bit depressed but I wasn’t entitled to much in terms of respite. Ralph went three times in total although I wish he hadn’t, especially the last time, because he came back much thinner. He’d never dream of complaining but it was clear he was very pleased to be home.
Unsurprisingly, I occasionally yearned to escape. I remember going out for a coffee one day with my daughter. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were sitting outside when I thought ‘oh, what would it like to be free, to be able to sit here as long as I like.’ But then I remembered poor Ralph and felt so guilty.
However, I did find one very effective way to deal with the stress. Every evening, once Ralph was settled, I’d go for a half hour walk. Even if it was dark or pouring with rain I still went out. It became my daily therapy.
Ralph passed away peacefully on 24th February, 2009, aged 85. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time crying until I finally reached a point when I thought, ‘do I go on like this forever or do I want to live?’ I decided I had to stop moping and worrying my family and try appreciating the life I had left.
Six years later, I have found a way to have fun again. With much encouragement from my daughter Tineka, a professional model, I attended a casting with her for a new model agency in London. I only went along because I was bored and like a day out in London. The next thing I knew I was picked out, photographed and asked lots of questions. I am now on the books of The Grey Model Agency! I’ve appeared in magazines and newspapers and recently featured in a TV documentary.
I spent so many years caring, it’s nice to do something a bit frivolous. Modelling brings another dimension to my life. I would never have had the confidence to do it when I was younger – modelling was a snooty business then anyway. But it’s different now and my age is actually a bonus! As for my dear Ralph, I know he would be so happy for me. He would laugh and say, ‘you were meant to do this.’ But it would really amuse him that it had taken me so long. It is quite a funny story isn’t it? I suppose you could say it’s never too late.