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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - March 2011

It could be you ....

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor in private practice after 20yrs with Relate, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet as we pass our half-way markers.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column. 



My wife is changing

Dear Maggi

I have been married to my wife for over thirty years and love her as much now as I ever did. She is still lovely to my eyes and a very intelligent and practical woman. But now and then I get so angry with her that I hate myself.

The trouble is that I don’t know if her forgetfulness is the general process of ageing or if there is something more worrying going on. Sometimes we go out and she has forgotten her bag, or her hat, or her keys, or her mobile phone and we can laugh it off. I do the same much more often than I used to. But what worries me more is when I find her trying to do a simple task that wouldn’t normally have given her any difficulty and she is really struggling with it. She seems to find such things as stacking the dishwasher in the usual way a challenge sometimes, plugging in her sewing machine seems hard, more so than just due to arthritis, when she is bullying the plug and getting ‘het-up’ about it. We both forget names of friends or places occasionally but she has more difficulty than I do and it irritates her.

Sometimes we laugh at this and sometimes we fall silent and then we know what each other thinks.

When she becomes stressed it worries me.
Sometimes I need to do things for her or ‘untangle’ a situation she’s got herself in and we have conversations where she misunderstands or misinterprets what I’m saying and we go round and round in circles. This leaves me annoyed or angry and I snap at her then feel terrible. I feel really cut off and miserable sometimes and I know it is to do with how things have changed so much over the last few years in terms of our independence as individuals.

We used to have an arrangement when one of us would go alone to spend a few days with an old friend, but now she wants to come with me. I always valued those times away – even though coming home was just as good as leaving. I miss that freedom and feel as though my life might be about to close in.

Do you think I should I be worried? How do I voice what I think we’re both thinking without it sounding like a criticism or scaring her? She has always been so independent.


Maggi Replies

It is hard enough trying to cope with more frequent lapses of memory or not being able to recall the name of someone on TV or of an acquaintance and accept that it is a normal part of the ageing process, but, when the spectre in the corner is something more serious, it becomes harder to talk it over with those closest to us.

You have had so long together and it sounds as though you have found a very healthy balance in your relationship between being close and having time to yourselves. Well done, it isn’t an easy thing to negotiate or achieve. But now you have a strong feeling that something has shifted in the needs of your wife and it has not been negotiated or acknowledged. You have obviously agreed that you each had things you enjoyed doing singly and have found a way of accommodating those needs, which leads me to think that you are a couple who talk things over as a matter of course. But now it feels like fear is stopping you mentioning the latest changes.

That fear, I assume, since you don’t mention it by name in your email, is dementia.

One of the first things a trainee Samaritan learns is that asking if someone feels suicidal isn’t the thing that makes a caller actually do that, it merely gives them the reassurance that you aren’t going to run a mile if they want to talk about their thoughts and fears.

In the same way, being able to ask your wife if she is worried about her memory lapses might help her to talk about it with you rather than you both keeping the fear going in your own heads only. If she were encouraged to talk and you could reassure her of your support no matter what happens, she might feel strong enough to see her GP who could assure her that all is perfectly normal for her age or explain that more tests can be done. Whichever way that visit goes it is better to discuss it than feel cut off from each other. One outcome means you can shake off the forgetfulness and laugh - or be irritated - without fear, the other means she is more likely to receive help and support and can plan for the changes ahead while fully fit – early symptoms of dementia can take years to develop further. I hope that the outcome is the former, but if the latter I wish you strength, courage and compassion.

Another opportunity to talk is to use one of the times you find yourselves laughing over some incident and suggest to her that you both need to sharpen up your memory and maybe talk of your own fear of what could happen if your own memory loss wasn’t the normal kind. Suggest doing mind puzzles and crosswords, get a daily newspaper – there are always puzzle pages in them nowadays – and talk about news items. Watch tv quiz shows and compete with the contestants at home as a team.
Family and friends might have noticed things too so be prepared to listen to their observations or concerns. The Alzheimer’s website has masses of very useful information and good advice about keeping the mind active and supported that is useful for us all, even without the illness.

As many of the post-war generation and those who are a little older and a little younger edge a shade closer to the age where, as Prince Philip – ninety this year - put it recently, “Things begin to drop off” (though we must try not to take his words too literally), we are becoming much more aware of the illnesses or loss of strength that older age brings. Perhaps one of the things most dreaded is losing brain function rather than being less physically able. Dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease, is on the increase as the children of the post-war population explosion reach their sixties. As yet there is no known cure. But there is a great deal of research indicating that, if diagnosed early, there are drugs that can slow the merciless progress of dementia at certain stages. The difficulty is in getting a diagnosis. It is hard for doctors to be absolutely sure that the symptoms are not due to some other cause. There are though, particular signals to indicate a memory loss or lapse that is more than the normal ones common to most older people. It is important that anyone worried over memory loss or behavioural changes consults their doctor and if still worried asks their GP to refer them to a memory clinic.

Some years ago I wrote in my column about Alzheimers in two consecutive months, numbers 18 – Dr Alzheimer’s Prison, and 19 - Alzheimer’s, How do we cope?. These can be found in the Laterlife Relationships Archive

• The number of people with dementia is expected to increase steadily over the next 25 years:
• There are over 5 million people with dementia in Europe
• There are nearly 18 million people with dementia in the world
• By 2025 there will be about 34 million people with dementia in the world

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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