Dedicated wife arranges special wedding anniversary celebration for husband with Alzheimers

Kathryn Thomson took her husband, Bruce, who has Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, back to where they created their first memories together.
Kathryn and Bruce Thomson

Dementia can't stop this dedicated couple!

It was as menacing clouds dumped torrential rain over Hawke’s Bay that Kathryn Thomson buckled husband Bruce into their wheelchair-enabled car for a very important journey.

Heading to a special destination for their wedding anniversary, this was no simple trip away.

Bruce has Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – a hugely debilitating illness that has left him largely unable to speak or move.

He also has seizures and needs around-the-clock care, a task shared by Kathryn and the professional team at the couple’s retirement village in Havelock North.

It’s been a bewildering disease for Kathryn (71) to accept and understand, but she’s a woman with true grit and is refusing to take her husband’s diagnosis lying down.

So when she decided there was much to celebrate on their 26th wedding anniversary this year, everyone around her knew there would be no dissuading the dedicated wife.

“I met Bruce in 1991 at the Margaret O’Connor Dance Studio in Cuba Street, Wellington,” begins Kathryn, Bruce (81) tucked up in his wheelchair beside her.

“Bruce was a very good dancer who’d won medals, and one day he asked if he could come and pick me up for one of the local community dances.”

Their friendship quickly developed into a loving relationship, with the couple marrying in October 1993.

Kathryn and Bruce − who has two children from his first marriage and had a successful panel and paint business − lived and worked in Lower Hutt for 25 years, loving the simple things in life: walking, dancing, shopping at Queensgate Mall, dinner at their local − the Angus Inn – and taking cruises “which we really enjoyed,” says Kathryn.

“While some couples go to make new friends, we much preferred each other’s company and spending time together.”

As long as they both shall live! Kathryn and Bruce wed in October 1993 (pictured). They renewed their vows in 2016.

When Bruce’s health started to deteriorate four years ago “there were warning signs,” Kathryn tells, her ‘Still Me’ Alzheimer’s awareness pin glinting in the sunshine.

“His driving wasn’t good, and there was a terrible incident while we were travelling in Amsterdam where he was very confused, getting up in the night trying to pack his bag. I knew there was something really wrong – I cried nearly the whole plane ride home.”

The couple moved from their beloved Lower Hutt to Hawke’s Bay 18 months ago, “so I could have companionship and family support”, explains Kathryn, who has two sisters in the area.

“I’m glad we moved when we did because shortly before-hand, Bruce fell out our back door and hit his head on the pavers − that was the beginning of the real downturn.”

He now needs to be fed, bathed and toileted, but Kathryn says she still catches glimpses of the man she deeply loves and wants him to have the best life possible.

“When our wedding anniversary was approaching, I thought we might go back to Lower Hutt one last time,” she says. Her plan was simple −they would drive over the Remutaka Range “because that’s the way we always used to go”, and they’d lunch at their wedding venue, Wallaceville House, as well as try to see their old home and Bruce’s former business.

With the plan set in her head, Kathryn approached the medical team at the retirement village who initially weren’t keen.

“It was because of Bruce’s seizures. So they suggested I find a nurse to go with us.”

Enter Miranda Smith, owner of Miranda Smith Homecare – an agency with offices across New Zealand that provides palliative, retirement and respite care, generally in the home of the client.

“I was hesitant because I wondered if Miranda would think I was crazy!” Kathryn laughs.

“But she lifted my spirits and told me, ‘Kathryn – we can help. We will get you to Wellington and back.'”

And head south they did, with their “wonderful” carer Erin along for the ride.

Kathryn was thoroughly prepared – there was a medical plan in place, a mattress and blankets in the car in case Bruce had a seizure, and a rest home in Wellington that took care of him at night.

With a meticulous plan inplace and help from carer Erin (above left), Kathryn and Bruce took a trip down memory lane.

Kathryn smiles as she recalls ice creams at Eastbourne, driving around the bays and taking Bruce to see their old home and business.

They even had mango chicken – Bruce’s favourite – for lunch at the Angus Inn when they found Wallaceville House wasn’t open.

The best part of all, she says, was that Bruce was responsive.

“His face would often light up! He seemed to particularly like it when we stopped outside his workshop. I know all his little signs…” she smiles.

Now back in Havelock North, Kathryn is piecing together an album of special places from Bruce’s past.

While Taupo was next on the list, she doesn’t know if they’ll be able to travel again – which makes her even more grateful she took Bruce for one last jaunt down memory lane.

“It means a lot that Bruce and I could visit places from our life together. I feel happy and so glad that we did it.”

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