John Suchet: our carer saved my life

By Anthea Gerrie, June 24, 2010
Newsreader John Suchet with his wife, Bonnie, who now needs full-time care for her dementia

Newsreader John Suchet with his wife, Bonnie, who now needs full-time care for her dementia

John Suchet has a tough week ahead, he confesses at the Baker Street block of flats where he grew up and now sits surrounded by boxes. On Tuesday he will close the door on the happiest chapter of his life when he walks out of the home he shared with his beloved wife Bonnie for 25 years. The night before, he has a talk to give at a Jewish Care fundraising dinner.

Ask which will be the most difficult to face and the answer is surprising: "Bonnie has already gone, and now I've got to do the same. As for the fundraiser, I can talk about television journalism or Beethoven until I'm blue in the face, but when I talk about dementia, it always ends in tears.

"I put Bonnie out there in the public eye and she's known the world over, but only as a woman suffering with dementia. I also chose to put her in a home when I don't know if she would have done the same with me if our positions had been reversed. The guilt that I am feeling is something which never goes away."

Suchet, once known best as an award-winning ITN newcaster, is now famous for his moving book about losing his adored "east coast blonde" to Alzheimer's.

Diagnosed at just 64, it claimed her stylishness and her dignity as well as her memory, and brought the couple's three decades of blissful intimacy to a rapid end.

Dementia carers are so coiled up they often die before their partners

If anything good can be said to come out of the tragic curtailment of their love affair when they were active, comfortably-off and well reconciled with the five sons from their two previous marriages, it is the increase in specialist nurses as a result of the publicity that Suchet has given to the cause of dementia.

"An Admiral nurse literally saved my life - and it's just a lottery that I was living in an area where I could get one," says Suchet. "The aim when I launched an academy for training more nurses in Bonnie's name last month was to make them as available as Macmillan nurses are now to cancer patients."

Carers of dementia patients really need their lives to be saved, he points out, "because they are so coiled up, they often die before their partners. While Macmillan nurses are there for the patients, Admiral Nurses are there for the carers - and stay with them for the rest of their lives."

What Suchet's nurse told him is what he says every carer of a dementia sufferer wants to hear: "That even when you think you are being a monster, the way you are behaving is normal.

"It's not an exaggeration to say Ian saved my life. I got in touch with him when I was at my absolute lowest, not handling things well and persuaded to take the help that was available. Ian asked me if I had thought of suicide, and I realised that subconsciously, in my darkest moments, I thought Bonnie might be better off if I was not there. But where would that have left her?" Suchet was lucky his NHS Trust is one that funds Admiral nurses: "Kent has the most, there are none at all in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and if I lived one mile up the road, I wouldn't have had access to one at all."

They are so vital, he says, "because with dementia it is the carer who takes the full strain. I saw Bonnie yesterday, and she was content. She has never asked if there is anything wrong, or why she was taken to the place where she lives now. I am the one who walks away in tears."

His book talks of his struggle to stay positive after Bonnie's 2006 diagnosis: "'We'll cope,' I thought, but you have no idea how rapidly the disease is going to progress."

He speaks poignantly of a sudden longing for his parents, who lived in the same block of flats until they died: "My dad was a doctor, and I longed to be able to ask him: 'Tell me what you know about this illness.' And I wished my mum, the most commonsense person I have ever known, was there to make me a cup of tea."

He gets plenty of support from his brothers, and plans a move to Docklands to be nearer his brother David, the actor. At 66, he hopes to subsume some of his sadness in the music which has been his greatest consolation.

"I'm writing my sixth book about Beethoven, talking to Classic FM about a Sunday afternoon programme and might get a student from the Royal Academy to bring me up to speed on the trombone. But I'm not desperate, not just looking for things to do."

One thing he has learnt from dementia, he says, is that life is a lottery: "If you had told me a year ago that I would have left this flat, sold our house in France and put Bonnie into full-time care, I simply would not have believed you."

And the other is that there can always be laughs. "Bonnie's sense of humour is better now than it ever was - like the moment she described herself as 'Bonnie at confused dot com.'"

Living and laughing, he says, is the only way to stop the "vile thief" who stole his beautiful blonde from claiming another victim.

'My Bonnie: How Dementia Stole the Love of My Life' is published by HarperCollins. Admiral Nurse Direct helpline: 0845 257 9406

Last updated: 11:49am, June 24 2010