How easy it is for you to declare yourself ready to find a new partner when you’re still married to the woman you’ve cherished for more than 30 years? But then life is far from easy when Alzheimer’s strikes as young as 50—as it did Ernest’s wife, Solape. Two years after she was diagnosed with the disease, her condition has deteriorated so quickly that she often forgets who her husband is. Today, she lives with one of their four children while Ernest faces life in their comfortable home alone.
“As controversial as my situation is, my life has to go on,” said Ernest, fresh from one of his frequent visits to his wife. “I’m in my early 50s and that means finding another woman to share it with. We could easily have another 30 years together—and where would be the sense of waiting until Solape dies before I start to look for a new partner? Yet, meeting someone new in your 50s is hard enough without admitting why.”
But what of until death do us part? There will be many who believe it is wrong to move on before his wife has died. But Ernest insisted: “Believe me, barely a day passes without me thinking of our marriage vows. I know I promised we’d be together in sickness and in health. I’ve battled with my conscience and the guilt has been unbearable at times, but after hours of soul-searching, I’ve reached the conclusion that there’s simply no point in two lives being wasted. I would like another relationship while she is alive, but I’d never divorce her to marry someone else. That goes against everything I believe. I would remarry after she died, but not while she is alive. I could sit at home alone every night, sinking deeper into depression, but my wife wouldn’t want that for me, and I don’t want it for myself either… .”
Ernest, a structural engineer with his own successful building maintenance company, has faced no opposition. According to him: “Every person I’ve told—friends, family members, even casual acquaintances—has accepted it and agreed I should move on with my life. Some were initially shocked, but they quickly told me I was doing the right thing. Even the children have given their blessings. My first son, who is 30, told me he knew I had to move on simply because I can’t carry on living the way I am. He knows I’m so lonely on my own and there is no relationship between their mother and I any more. It wouldn’t be fair to expect me to live like this for ever. But it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with—imagining me with someone else, thinking about another woman in their mum’s place— that would be really hard to accept. But all the children want is for me to be happy.”
The couple got married in their early 20s, and as the children arrived and Ernest’s business boomed, Solape became a full time wife. “She lived for the children and loved nothing more than having the family around,” said Ernest. “Some marriages crack under the strain of family life, but not ours. I loved her as much as the day we got married and as grandchildren came along—all nine of them—our home brimmed with little ones once more.
“The first warning something was wrong was when she began to find the noise too much. Soon after, she started having trouble putting on her clothes. At first, I’d found it funny until she started having trouble with her eyesight, unable to see a drinking glass in front of her. She’d go to pick it up but grasp at thin air just beside it. It always made her so angry—imagine not being able to do something so simple—but afterwards, she’d go very quiet.
It’s as if the reality of what was happening to her was slowly sinking in, though she’d never voice her fears. At first, I thought it might be motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. Alzheimer’s never even crossed my mind. Why would it? She was only 51 when she started showing symptoms.
“It was our family doctor abroad that finally diagnosed the disease and it was a relief that we could finally start the right treatment. But on the other hand, I felt a crushing dread. Alzheimer’s felt far worse than anything I’d been worrying about. I would lose her once, when the last of her personality finally deserted her. Then I’d be left with an empty shell until I lost her all over again when she died.
“The children took it particularly badly. They were understandably angry to be losing their mother to Alzheimer’s at such a young age. They later agreed she would be better cared for at our eldest’s. Even after she settled to her new home, she kept crying. One day, she flew at me, punching, scratching, screaming— I snapped. I’m deeply ashamed of it, but I even thought about harming her.”
When asked if, on some level he’d put his wife into their children’s care to allow himself space to move on he was definitive: “I looked after my wife for as long as I could and it was during the subsequent nights alone that I started to ponder the future. The first time I visited and saw that blank look in her eyes, I knew I had to move on. She wasn’t the woman I married any more.” As for telling his children of his intentions, he said: “We’ve always been very close and I want to see them all individually and came right out with it: ‘I’m looking for someone else’ and braced myself forbears but they didn’t come. They all just accepted it, as if it was inevitable.
So, any luck yet? “There is someone I’ve been seeing more of—a friend of mine and Solape’s who lost her husband last year. She’d been a great support,” he admitted. “At the moment, we’re just good friend, but who knows where it might lead? She’s family-oriented and has a heart of gold, but more importantly, she understands the situation and accepts it, which matters to me most.
“Solape will always be my responsibility and I’ll continue to pay for her care and anything else she needs. Anyone I meet has to accept that Solape might not go so soon. If they have a problem with it, then it just wasn’t to be. People will think it heartless, but it’s not fair on anyone, even my wife. She still gets upset when I see her. Imagine how unsettling it will be when I’m a total stranger to her. It’s over for Solape and me, but I need to have a future.”