Colchester: Wife’s heartache over losing the man she loves to the demons of dementia
12:00 26 April 2014
Army veteran Terry Potter has led an exciting and occasionally dangerous life serving in Northern Ireland and working for the military police.
But his life took an unexpected turn when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in October 2010, as his loving wife Val explains to health correspondent LAUREN EVERITT
“With Alzheimer’s you are grieving for someone who has not died,” says Val Potter. “You have lost the person you love but you haven’t lost them physically.”
Val nursed husband Terry at their West Mersea home for three years but his health gradually declined, not so much mentally but physically, because of his Type 2 Diabetes.
“It was Terry’s lack of mobility I couldn’t handle. He had district nurses in twice a day and to be fair, I was offered carers but I nursed Terry’s mum and his sister, and I didn’t want to go down the care route,” Val says.
“But you have no life at all and you are waiting for someone all the time.
“Terry has had three falls while at home. I live in a cul-de-sac with lots of elderly people and I was looking for someone to help me pick him up.
“Sometimes I just had to call an ambulance. The doctors and district nurses were saying to me ‘what if he falls on you?’ because Terry is 6ft 5ins and I’m only 4ft 8ins.”
After a fall, Val made the heartbreaking decision that she needed help. After a short stay in a care home that fell below Val’s expectations, she was able to move Terry into Foxburrow Grange in Colchester in January.
Val explains: “It was a double-edged sword. I’m eternally grateful that he is in there.
“I know that he is being cared for but I still know he is not cared for like I cared for him but that’s nobody’s fault.
“Everyone said that when Terry went into care ‘you will feel so much better Val’ but you don’t because you feel so guilty.”
As a soldier in the Royal Artillery, he completed 13 tours in Northern Ireland, joined the military police at Colchester Garrison and dedicated years working in the Foreign Office taking care of British Embassy staff around the world.
Val and Terry, both 72, worked together in the Foreign Office for more than two decades and travelled to destinations including Rome, Nigeria, Washington and Beijing for work.
The pair were in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 where Terry had helped evacuate British citizens.
“We worked together for 25 years and all of sudden you haven’t got anyone to discuss things with. It sounds really selfish of me,” Val adds.
“I’m at home in the bungalow with our dog Ruby but all I do is get ready to go and see Terry because we’ve always been together and done things together.
“The loneliness is the biggest problem, especially in the evenings. I know I can get up and go out but you can’t go out too much because financially you are so much worse off.”
The couple, who have six children and 12 grandchildren between them, met when Val was nursing Terry’s first wife, Babs, at St Helena Hospice. She died after a battle with breast cancer in 1986.
She says: “We had this scheme at the hospice where the deceased person’s relatives could talk to the nurse caring for that person and my contact details were given to Terry to keep in touch.
“And we did keep in touch and I visited him in Sweden. We got engaged and then married in 1987.
“Before I met Terry I hadn’t even been to the Isle of Wight but now I’ve travelled around the world working for the Foreign Office.”
Terry joined the armed forces when he was 17. He had started an apprenticeship as a vehicle mechanic but asked himself “do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?”
The answer was “no”.
He says: “I had no intention of joining the military at all but a couple of weeks later I was in Sheffield and saw a sign advertising for the Royal Artillery.
“I went in and had to take a two-hour test and the man told me ‘if you don’t get this right, that’s it’.
“It only took me 15 minutes and that was it, I was in. I hadn’t told my mum and dad.”
Val says 2010 was the couple’s “disaster year”. It was the year Terry was diagnosed with bowel cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
As if the diagnoses were not devastating enough, Terry had to surrender his driving licence and leave the Foreign Office job he loved.
“It was a huge turning point,” says Val, and led to him having a mental breakdown and being hospitalised for eight weeks.
“Terry is now on medication for his Alzheimer’s and the results are amazing. It has held the Alzheimer’s back tremendously.”
One of the hardest things for Val to cope with is not knowing how her husband will react each time she sees him.
“The other day when I came in he was on guard duty and he had to make sure his men were all there. Another time he was in a terrible state because he thought I had been kidnapped by terrorists,” Val explains.
“That kind of things upsets you and he is not your Terry any more. It’s very hard but we are getting through it.
“With Alzheimer’s there’s another loss. There’s huge financial loss.
“I drive the smallest car on the planet and it’s trying to make ends meet all the time, but I can’t talk to Terry about it.
“There are lots of places for carers to go for support but I’m not a carer anymore.
“You’re not anyone really.”