WHEN Terry Byrne had to jump in his backyard pool to save his wife Shirley who “didn’t know which way was up and which way was down” he knew something was wrong, but never suspected Alzheimer’s disease.
“She had a brilliant mind; we used to play golf together, squash and go ballroom dancing; she was a dance teacher,” he said.
Balcatta resident Mr Byrne said many doctors originally diagnosed Shirley with symptoms of menopause and when she was eventually diagnosed in 1989 at only 48 he admitted he had never heard of the disease.
“For me it was a learning curve, when she was diagnosed and they said she had Alzheimer’s, I had never heard of it,” he said.
“I didn’t understand that moving her around away from the environment she was used to wasn’t good, we went to Broome, Tasmania, New Zealand and half the time she was so confused she was screaming; this is before we knew what it was.”
After 21 years of caring for Shirley, she passed away in 2004, leaving behind three children.
Mr Byrne now volunteers at the men’s shed at Alzheimer’s Australia WA Mary Chester Centre in Shenton Park, helping the lives of those living with the disease.
“I was a bit worried when I first came here, I thought ‘can I do this after 21 years with my wife?’ but it was only a matter of weeks and I was into it, I’ve now been there three years,” he said.
“Seeing them (the clients) achieve something is really rewarding, I go home at night and think what a great day it’s been.
“They are not getting their memory back but they are enjoying what they do and somehow gaining new skills, we’re always busy making things.
“I’m hoping to continue with the men’s shed, as long as I’m doing something that is helping these people.”
Mr Byrne said he would advise others caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s to allow themselves to have a break.
“I was in the only person caring for her for the first ten years of her illness, it wasn’t until I thought I was having a heart attack and rushed to hospital and it just turned out to be stress that I found help,” he said.
“Don’t overdo it because it is your health that would be eventually compromised as well.”
Alzheimer’s Australia WA chief executive Rhonda Parker said Mr Byrne was a “dementia care hero”.
“He put his hand up to help others living with dementia even though it has caused him so much personal sadness. He has helped a great many people and we cannot thank him enough,” she said.
If you are interested in helping people living with dementia contact Alzheimer’s Australia on 9388 2800 or www.fightdementia.org.au. The National Dementia Helpline is 1800 100 500.