The long, painful goodbye
WHEN Nicholas Brown ran into his first girlfriend a couple of years ago at a funeral, the 77-year-old didn't immediately recognise her.
"Remember me, it's Sylvia," said his old friend.
"Oh, I remember now," Nicholas said eventually. "I didn't recognise you because you've put on so much weight."
Witnessing this brutal exchange, Nick's wife of 22 years, Wendy, wanted the floor to swallow her up.
But trying to smooth over her husband's social gaffes has become a distressingly regular part of this Tweed Heads South resident's life in recent years.
Wendy never did get the chance to explain to poor Sylvia that Nicholas's bluntness was a symptom of Alzheimer's, a form of dementia for which there is no cure and which is the second leading cause of death in Australia.
Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest of tasks.
As the disease progresses, it often produces increasingly severe personality and behaviour changes.
Wendy says for Nick, the symptoms, besides a lack of diplomacy, include angry outbursts, defensiveness, a sense of humour that is becoming increasingly child-like, confusion, and a seemingly bottomless appetite which forces her to hide food from him.
"I'm obviously unaware of it," says Nick, looking intently at his wife. "Maybe we should have these sorts of conversations more often."
Sitting in the couple's elegant hilltop home, listening as his wife pours her heart out, Nicholas remains perplexed as to who I am and why I am asking so many questions.
That's despite my having already repeated that I was there because his condition was disturbingly common in the Tweed Shire, which suffers the highest rate of dementia in NSW.
On another occasion, just a few years after Nick was diagnosed with the fatal disease in 2009, he picked up the wrong wallet after having his belongings scanned at Brisbane Airport.
"Security! This man's stolen my father's wallet," screamed a woman, believing Nick was a thief instead of just confused.
Wendy asked him to give it back, but Nick was adamant the wallet was his.
"That's the point where I thought, 'I just don't know if I can do this'," recalls Wendy of what is just one of many embarrassing episodes.
She now carries a printed card which informs strangers of Nick's condition.
But her husband's fading memory and social graces are not the most serious of her concerns.
In October, while trying to turn on the barbecue on their balcony, Nicholas somehow managed to set the house alight, causing $40,000 in damage.
Taking care of the retired owner/principal of Sydney's Coogee Preparatory, has become a draining, full-time labour of love for Wendy.
It forced the trained nurse to give up her job in administration at Tweed Hospital late last year.
The couple moved from Sydney back to the Tweed where they owned a home, seeking a simpler life after Nick's diagnosis in 2009.
They feature in a new TV advertisement promoting Lifebridge Australia, a not-for-profit organisation based at Tweed Heads that offers a range of services for the elderly and disabled.
The service picks up Nick twice a week for bus trips with other dementia sufferers and Wendy says it has been a godsend for them both.
The most difficult aspects for her of this insidious disease, are the anger and grief over watching her husband disappear before her eyes and the fear of what the future holds.
She dreads the day she can no longer manage and has to put him in a nursing home.
"Everybody just loved Nick. He was everybody's mate," she recalls of the sporty, fascinating man she married in 1996.
"I've lost my mate," she says tearfully.
THE Tweed Shire has an estimated 1842 dementia sufferers, according to new figures prepared for Alzheimer's Australia NSW by Deloitte Access Economics. That's the highest figure in NSW.
The Tweed statistics are expected to blow out by 106% to nearly 3800 local sufferers by 2050.
Alzheimer's Australia NSW can be contacted via the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.
Phone Lifebridge Australia on 07 5589 8900.