Tell Me About It: My wife has dementia and my kids think I am being unfaithful

I feel let down by my family’s behaviour and sordid thoughts

PROBLEM: Over the past two years my wife, to whom I have been married to for the past 39 years, has slowly developed dementia. She becomes confused very easily. I dearly miss our chats. We had enjoyed a much-deserved retirement and I would say that I have become quite lonely.

Our marriage has generally been very happy. We raised four children, who were initially very supportive. About 12 months ago our children began to take turns to stay with my wife while I went on day trips with an active-ageing group. I relished this time, especially seeing new places.

Six months ago a recently bereaved lady joined the group. Her husband also had dementia and I have found much comfort from chatting with her. I enjoyed her company, and we often sat next to each other on the coach. By coincidence, I met her recently in a local restaurant and introduced her to my son. I was surprised and disappointed that my son was somewhat rude to her. On the drive home he accused me of having an affair, and even told my wife, causing her unnecessary distress.

Now all of my children refuse to stay with my wife to allow me to attend outings. I have never once given my wife any cause for concern over my fidelity. I feel let down by my family’s behaviour and sordid thoughts. Mostly I miss having time for myself. How do I convince them that this lady is just a friend?

ADVICE: It is very sad and lonely to have your wife slowly become incapacitated while you are still able to fully enjoy your own life. It sounds as though you have been going through grief for some time and that you finally got some relief from the group, who were able to share your experiences and offer you solace.

That your son had such a strong response to meeting your female friend suggests that he is responding from a very emotional place and is fearful that you are disregarding his mother. Anger is a normal part of grief, and perhaps he and your other children are directing their anger towards you as they try to cope with the loss of their mother.

However, this response seems closer to punishment. I wonder why they feel the need to challenge you to such an extent.

What are you being accused of? Perhaps your children feel that you are becoming close to another woman, that you have some intimacy with her and are attracted to her. This might all be true in that it is normal for human beings to long for closeness and connection, and perhaps you are now coming to some sense of aliveness following a long period of letting go. If this is the case and you have accepted that you and your wife will never have a close, intimate relationship again, then maybe it is time to broach this new reality with your children. Do you feel you have a right to companionship and attraction, or are you ashamed that you are experiencing these urges while your wife is still alive? Before speaking to your children, you might reflect on what you want from your life and what you need to address.

Will your wife need nursing-home care, and if so, how will you and your children come to this decision? Although you need to understand their grief, you also need to consider how you would like the rest of your life to proceed and whether this subject needs to be aired and accepted by the family.

You seem clear that you have done nothing untoward, and yet you are coping with accusations and disbelief from your family. Are they seeing something in you that you have not yet acknowledged in yourself? If so, are you courageous enough to face this and bring it up as a topic for discussion? If you feel that the conversation cannot be had without an intermediary, then perhaps ask someone whom everyone respects to mediate this or consider a session with a family therapist.

Another possibility is that you invite your children to meet up with the active-ageing group so that they can discover what it is you get from this.

We live in a world where older people are not expected to have amorous feelings, even though this is clearly not the case. As long as we are alive we have hearts that want to be connected with, bodies that require loving touch and minds that can be ignited. It is possible to acknowledge these desires without feeling traitorous or sordid. Compassion for yourself as well as for your wife and children might well offer a healing pathway at this tough time.