As I caught the eye of my wife, Sheila, we both grimaced slightly when a heavily-inked woman and man began to etch our tattoo designs onto our arms.
It was close to our 80th birthdays – four years ago – and we were at a tattoo parlour in Lowestoft, Suffolk.
With a mixture of apprehension and excitement, we had decided to get our one and only tattoos – matching hearts – a few days earlier as an outward sign of our love and dedication to each other.
This was after more than 60 years of marriage and receiving a devastating life-changing diagnosis.
In 2017, I started noticing small changes in Sheila, then aged 78. She would make a cup of tea, but there would be no teabag in it, or she would put toast in the microwave.
It took me nearly a year to convince her to consider getting some help. At the time, she would say: ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just getting old!’
Eventually, when Sheila was 79, we went to see our GP, who immediately referred us for an MRI scan and then eight or nine days later to a memory clinic.
While there, Sheila was asked several questions – for example if she knew her phone number, her address, or who the American President was. Of course, she couldn’t answer. The same day, we were given the life-changing diagnoses – both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, known as mixed dementia.
At the time, I remember the doctor saying to us: ‘You don’t seem too worried.’ The truth was that we had prepared ourselves to hear the news and knew that we couldn’t do much about it, so we took it in.
We had spoken to each other beforehand and vowed that if the news was bad, we would accept it, make sure to make every minute count, enjoy life and embrace it. Our view was that if you worry too much, this anxiety just makes the situation worse.
For us, it was really the only way of looking at it.
Sheila and I made our vows to look after each other ‘in sickness and in health’ in July 1959 – nearly 64 years ago. Now, amidst the diagnosis, it was time for me to honour them.
We met in 1954, when we were both 15. Sheila had a date set up with one of my best mates, Terence, at the local church as there was a dance on that night. I saw her waiting outside and had the unenviable task of breaking the news to her that Terence had another date.
I tentatively approached her and mumbled: ‘Terence isn’t coming tonight because he’s gone out with Valerie.’ Sheila burst into tears.
I ended up walking her home because she was so disappointed. During the three-mile walk, I asked her if she wanted to go out with me instead. She said no.
Over those three miles, I asked her so many times that finally she gave in and said, ‘Fine, we’ll go out.’ I went round to pick her up the next day and we spent the day holding hands on a walk.
We have been holding hands ever since. We were engaged two years later when we were 17 and married in 1959 when we were both 20.
I was a milkman for 27 years and Sheila often joined me on my delivery rounds to keep me company. She made my dinner every night and when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer about eight years ago, Sheila kept positive and helped me through it.
People have said that we’re an odd couple. I come from a warm and affectionate family with lots of hugging and kissing. We’re straight up, honest and some could say blunt.
We say what we feel, and we show how we feel – but Sheila was from a different background, with a much less tactile upbringing. My family really took to her straight away and, after introducing her to my dad for the first time, he took me aside and said, ‘You make sure you look after her, son!’
I think, over the years, that’s rubbed off on Sheila and I’m proud that she loves having a cuddle as much as me!
When we got that diagnosis of dementia, I said to Sheila: ‘Right, we’re going to wear it like a badge. We’re not going to hide it and we’re not going to let it get us down. Life is what it is.’ She had exactly the same view and it kept us going.
So, now, it’s my turn to look after her.
I became aware of Alzheimer’s Society when someone mentioned that they had a local meeting on the last Friday of the month to provide support and advice. There was a dementia adviser there that ran it and there was always an incredibly warm welcome.
Someone different would come in for each session and advise on different things, like explaining that we were entitled to an allowance to help with extra costs or that I could make decisions in areas like finance on Sheila’s behalf when she was lacking mental capacity.
Now, I regularly get advice from Alzheimer’s Society. The best thing is that you talk to a human being – someone who understands and is ready to listen.
Inevitably, things have changed since Sheila’s diagnosis. Things like me overseeing all the meals – I even attempted to cook a roast dinner recently! – or having to take crisps out of the fridge that Sheila put in there.
But she’s still the same, loving person that she was before and we still laugh together every day. I use my instinct, rather than any training, and I’m able to adapt to her needs – we’ve known each other long enough to be able to do that.
Our close family were initially upset with the diagnosis, but they’ve really rallied round ever since. They are always offering help, but I tell them that I will come to them when I need them. It is reassuring to know that they are only a phone call away.
Then our matching heart tattoos came about four years ago. They were actually designed in the back seat of the car by our 17-year-old grandson on the way to the tattoo shop during a family break in Lowestoft.
It felt like a nice thing to do to celebrate our milestone birthdays and to cement our commitment to each other after all these years.
Some people wonder how we can still be this much in love after all these years, and though she sometimes forgets my name or even that I’m her husband, Sheila still knows that she loves me. And that I love her.
Sometimes I catch her looking at me from across the room and I say: ‘What are you looking at?’
She replies: ‘I’m just looking at you because I love you.’
This May, Alzheimer’s Society is asking people to wear a Forget Me Not badge, in honour of someone special and to help people living with dementia get the life-changing support they need.
By supporting Alzheimer’s Society’s Forget Me Not Appeal, you’re standing with Ron, Sheila and everyone affected by dementia – and helping them get the vital support they need. To find out more, visit the website here.
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