A Friendship Forged Through Dementia
Deb Bunt, Author, Living Well with Dementia
8th December 2023
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A chance meeting more than five years ago in a cycle shop was the catalyst to life changing events for both Peter Berry and me. Peter (now 59) had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, a crushing diagnosis for him and his family. And, as for me, disillusioned with my job in London and not able to find any real meaning in my work, I’d persuaded my husband to take early retirement and we moved, rather randomly as is my want in life, to Suffolk.
Fast forward and, not only have Peter and I become close friends, cycling partners and, now, public speakers but we have also written two books about his experiences of living well with dementia. Our mission remains to disseminate Peter’s message and, particularly, to raise awareness of the condition in Peter’s age group which presents a whole array of different problems to circumnavigate.
Peter continues to teach me so much. In “Slow Puncture, Living Well with Dementia” I expressed my belief that dementia was something exclusive to old people, an inevitable part of ageing. When I first met Peter and realised that he just looked ‘normal’, I was momentarily flummoxed. I wrote:
“What did I expect? A wild-eyed man with flowing unruly grey locks, dribbling and drooling into his bib, arms akimbo, running semi-naked, like a parody of King Lear…”
Peter, by simply being Peter, has disabused me of this view. It’s clear to see how stereotypes, preconceptions and myths can quickly escalate into prejudice. The consequences of that are hugely detrimental for the person living with the condition, particularly when the message you wish to share is ‘live well’.
Peter has provided me with many words of wisdom. For me, he is not so much Peter with dementia, he is Peter, the paradigm of perspicuity. Not only has he taught me about dementia, he has taught me about myself. Crucially, he has taught me the value of a true friendship, unadulterated by the superficial frills of trivia. This is because, despite the fact we spend an inordinate amount of time in each other’s company, Peter knows very little about me: not because he’s not interested but because he simply can’t remember. But, as Peter says in his own inimitable way, he stores our friendship in the “vault in his heart, to which he holds the key, and which not even dementia can unlock”.
In his poem, “Youth and Age”, Coleridge wrote that “friendship is a sheltering tree” and, given Peter’s work (he owned a timber business) was inextricably linked with trees and forests, I think this image is perfect to describe our friendship. It is a tree under which we both sit contentedly; it is a tree where the gently swaying branches provide us with some welcome shelter from the distant – but approaching – storm. One day, it might be a tree stripped bare of its protective leaves by the ravages of winter. It’s up to us to work out how to keep that friendship warm and alive.
Our friendship – quirky perhaps, unconventional maybe, unexpected definitely – was formed through a dementia diagnosis but has grown into something very special, something which transcends the darkness of dementia. Our friendship, like Peter’s everyday life, is lived in the moment and appreciated for those moments.
Ours was a serendipitous coming together and we are both the beneficiaries of that quirk of fate in a cycling shop. And Peter’s dementia monster – against whom he battles daily and from whom he likes to take – has handed me a very special gift in the form of this friendship. For as long as we can, we will both continue to sit together beneath the sheltering tree and nurture that bond of friendship.
Get in touch with Deb Bunt & Peter Berry:
Photograph credits: First image was taken by Mike Whitby, the second by John Fairhall.