My guests on this week’s podcast are two people who met by chance in a cycling shop in Suffolk. It was 2018 and one of them, Deb, had recently moved to the market town of Saxmundham, which she admits she’d never heard of and could barely pronounce when she and her husband took early retirement to move there.
The second is Peter, a Suffolk man through and through who took over his father’s timber business and for whom the trees and woods of his county are as familiar as old friends and family. He’s also a man who loves cycling and who, aged 50, was diagnosed with dementia. Yes, that’s right. Fifty.
Deb knew no one in her new neighbourhood. And very little about dementia, other than holding the common and mistaken belief that it only came with old age, liver spots and false teeth. Peter, slim, fit, and living with Alzheimer’s when she meets him, not only blows apart this myth but offers to show her some local cycling routes. And so an unlikely friendship begins.
Like all the best friendships it’s mutually reciprocal, hugely rewarding for both, and based on trust. It’s been captured in a remarkable book, brilliantly entitled Slow Puncture. It tells of their year together and in doing so, lays bare Peter Berry’s tumultuous Alzheimer’s journey in his words. So they are co-authors but it is Deb Bunt who has written it. Peter simply can’t. What’s more he will never read it. He will never, in fact, read his own story.
For Peter who, in the early days of his diagnosis, came seriously close to suicide not once but twice, cycling becomes his salvation. “With every turn of the pedals I cycled away from dementia and became the man I used to be and not the man I was fast becoming,” he says.
Having ridden his trusty old Claud Butler from Aberystwyth to Aldeburgh, raising £6,000 for Young Dementia UK, he plans a new challenge, this time with his new pedalling partner, Deb. It is to traverse the four counties of East Anglia and, to give it an extra twist, Peter will cover the miles perched one and a half metres above the ground on a penny farthing. Of course he will. He’s Peter Berry.
The more the pair cycle together over the months, the more the trust builds between them and the more Deb learns, not just about Peter and his dementia monster, his ways of coping and his hidden demons, but about herself.
Peter shows her the joys to be found in living in the moment and of celebrating the journey for what it is even if you lose your way and end up, as it were, in Orford instead of Framlingham. “It is perhaps a cruel paradox that Peter’s dementia, which is chipping away at his world and shrinking it, has created a whole new world for me,” Deb writes.
While in his turn, in his inimitable way, Peter tells her that while the condition’s taken so much from him – his income, his self-esteem, his future, he has taken a lot from it. “I live every day; I enjoy every day even if I might forget it moments later. They say you only live once, but that’s rubbish: you only die once. You live every day. And that’s what I fully intend to do”. Perhaps now’s a good moment to mention that the sub-title of their book, Slow Puncture, is Living Well With Dementia.
Peter and Deb were wonderful guests: down-to-earth, funny and with some wise observations not only about dementia, but life. Do listen to them, I hope you’ll find it half an hour or so well spent.
Slow Puncture: Living Well With Dementia is available from Amazon, simply click here.