REAL LIFE: ‘Dementia is not a life sentence’

editorial image

Pat Nixon can remember the precise moment when she realised something was seriously wrong with her husband, Eric. 

The couple, long-time, high ranking members of Fareham Lions, have devoted their lives to the charitable organisation. 

One evening eight years ago they were on their way to a Lions function at The Brookfield Hotel, Emsworth. 

Pat, a retired teacher, takes up the story. ‘It was the kind of event we’d been to many times before. Eric was in a DJ and I was in a posh frock. We were on the motorway, getting towards the Cosham junction, when Eric suddenly said, “Where are we going?”

‘He had no idea where we were or what we were doing. I told him to just keep going.

‘It was frightening. Up until then I’d had little hints that something was wrong but this was the big signal.’

Eric was diagnosed with dementia and, at first, the couple felt it keenly. They have six children between them from their previous marriages, and many grandchildren, and it was a very difficult time for the whole family. 

Pat, 75, says: ‘At first it felt like we were on a wheel simply going round and round. Eric was very upset.

‘But I said, “We are going to be like Terry Pratchett. We’re going to carry on our lives, things are not going to change”.’

The couple who were both widowed, wed in 1995 after romance blossomed at Fareham Lions.

They share an indomitable spirit and, before Eric’s diagnosis, they climbed to the very top of the Lions Club and were responsible for large health portfolios across the British Isles.

They were both, separately, honoured by the charity for their work. 

For the past three years they have gone out of their way to educate people, through Lions, about dementia and how to cope – and explain it does not have to mean life is over. 

Eric, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week with three big parties, says: ‘We still have very full lives. I can’t imagine not living a full life. Dementia hasn’t stopped us.’

On meeting Eric it is difficult to tell that there is anything wrong. He is constantly laughing and cracking cheeky jokes at Pat’s expense.

He’s tall and strong but the dementia becomes noticeable because he talks constantly about his RAF days, rather than the here and now. 

Pat says: ‘Eric doesn’t look as if he has dementia. He went along to a meeting to speak about the condition and everyone was astounded. Here was someone who had a diagnosis but was still able to do lots of things.’

Eric can remember in detail RAF adventures from the 1940s but has trouble remembering things he did just hours before.

He will also walk around the house turning on taps and is not allowed to drive.

There are signs around their immaculate home, in Beaufort Avenue, Fareham, with arrows pointing to the bathroom. And a carer comes in to give Pat a few hours respite each week because Eric cannot be left alone. 

At first the couple resisted joining dementia clubs but now they are a lifeline. 

Eric explains. ‘We knew we had to make friends outside of Lions so I joined a group in Portsmouth called Kitbags and Berets. At first I was very reluctant but it’s an amazing group, set up for veterans who have a dementia diagnosis. 

‘They all worry at first but as soon as we walk in we’re back on the mess deck.

‘And there’s so much banter between us all – army, navy and soldiers. We love the old days.’

Eric had three birthday parties last week – one for their family, one for the friends from Lions and one for all the friends they have made through dementia groups.

Pat, a retired school teacher, has trained as a dementia champion and together they give talks to Lions branches across the area. 

‘I use our experience of what it’s like living with dementia’ says Pat.

‘One of the most important messages is, it’s not the end of your life, it’s the start of a new sort of life.’

Eric says: ‘Lions gives us a big platform to talk about dementia. It’s a method of spreading the information outwards.’

And now Pat talks to schoolchildren about the disease and how to spot a sufferer.

 She says: ‘If they can recognise that someone has dementia, and they have a bit of patience with them, it can make a huge difference.’

For more information, call the Alzheimer’s Society on 0300 2221122 or go to alzheimers.org.uk 

Many happy returns from children’s author

Eric Nixon had a wonderful surprise present from a very famous author for his 90th birthday. 

David Walliams sent him a letter with a signed picture after Pat wrote to him to say how excellent she found his children’s book, Grandpa’s Great Escape. 

The bestseller tells the tale of a Second World War flying ace, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and when his family can no longer look after him he is moved to an old people’s home.

Daring Grandpa and his grandson plot his great escape.

Pat says: ‘I wrote to David Walliams explaining that I have a Grandpa at home and said I thought it was a wonderful book, a perfect book to help children and families understand about dementia.’

Eric was delighted with Walliams’ response, a signed photo and a letter wishing him a happy 90th birthday. 

The couple still very much enjoy the things they did before Eric’s diagnosis. 

They love to dance, at tea dances and at Lions functions. 

People with dementia usually love music. 

At Eric’s party for the friends he has made through dementia groups he hired a ukulele orchestra, which went down a treat with party-goers.