After 69 years, Neville Putt won't give up on love

CHARLOTTE CURD/stuff.co.nz

Phyllis Putt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 13 years ago. Despite recommendations to put her into a care facility, her husband of almost 69 years Neville refuses to leave her side.

On January 11 Neville and Phyllis Putt celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary. Christopher Reive speaks with them about staying true to their vows.

Over the sound of a steel guitar, Neville and Phyllis Putt fell in love.

Now, the meaning behind the sound only registers with one of them.

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"It's all through the music really, that we got together," Neville explained.

"We were in an orchestra together, and it all grew from there. We seemed to click together."

The sounds don't resonate with Phyllis anymore though, as 13 years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Phyllis Putt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 13 years ago. Despite recommendations to put her into a care ...
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Phyllis Putt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 13 years ago. Despite recommendations to put her into a care facility, her husband of 69 years, Neville, refuses to leave her side.

"It was a terrible shock. It's a thing you wouldn't dream about in your wildest dream, you know.

"I remember the doctor saying to me 'she'll be nothing like the girl you married.' It just makes me cry when I think about it. All of your dreams are shattered," Neville said.

"One thing she used to do was she'd cook and I'd be down in the garden and think 'what's that smell?'

Phyllis and Neville Putt were married 69 years ago.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Phyllis and Neville Putt were married 69 years ago.

"I'd find the potatoes had been put half on the ring but with no water in them. So you start to think there's something going on."

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Around five years ago the suggestion was made that Neville should put Phyllis, now 87, into a care facility. Staying true to his wedding vow of "in sickness and in health," he refused.

"I didn't want to put her into a home. We've always been together and I didn't want to part with her. In the early stages you can pamper them and look after them. You don't want to throw them away like an old slipper," Neville said.

Phyllis still reaches for Neville's hand for support despite her Alzheimer's disease affecting her memory.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Phyllis still reaches for Neville's hand for support despite her Alzheimer's disease affecting her memory.

"We both made wedding vows we'd look after each other as long as we possibly could, and you often say to each other you can't imagine life without them.

"I told her I'd care for her as long as I possibly could. They mean a lot to me - a lot more than they mean these days," Neville said.

Neville, now 93, said the disease didn't begin to show for the first couple of years.

Phyllis Putt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 13 years ago. Despite recommendations to put her into a care ...
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Phyllis Putt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 13 years ago. Despite recommendations to put her into a care facility, her husband of 69 years, Neville, refuses to leave her side.

The process of Alzheimer's is a gradual one, as it slowly deteriorates neuron cells in the sufferer's brain.

The disease effects the person's ability to think, carry out everyday tasks, and remember anything.

However, despite losing a lot of her memory, Neville is still the first person Phyllis turns to.

Neville and Phyllis met through a mutual love of music and played together in an orchestra.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Neville and Phyllis met through a mutual love of music and played together in an orchestra.

"The first thing she does when she comes to bed almost is put her hand out and grab mine and squeeze it," Neville said.

"If she didn't know me it wouldn't worry me so much. But she knows me, I'm sure, and a lot of the family. I don't want to take that away from her if I can help it," Neville said.

Since 1959, the couple have been living at their house on Brois St in New Plymouth which Neville said was a better place for Phyllis to remain.

"She knew this house, being here so long, that she could find her way around almost in the dark.

"If she shifted into a home by herself she'd be lost. When she's been in rest homes on respite I've gone with her and stayed in the same place," he said.

Neville said the house used to boast a great vegetable garden and a beautiful flower bed but as Phyllis' condition worsened the garden got less attention. It now sits run down and over grown.

For the past 13 years, an average day for Neville has revolved around looking after Phyllis - making sure she doesn't get into trouble or fall over.

"She has had the odd fall and ended up in hospital with a broken bone in her wrist. But it's a matter of one-on-one care with her a lot of the time which they can't do in homes," Neville said.

With time not slowing down, Neville enlisted help with caring for Phyllis from his daughters Sheryl Vale and Janice Panchaud, and also hires carers who he pays for out of his own pocket.

Janice said the choice to keep Phyllis in the family home has been the best thing for her, although not all of her eight siblings agreed.

"Keeping mum at home has kept her going more. We have pictures up and the names under them to keep her alive," Janice said.

"When you shift people around to another place it's very upsetting for them.

"My wife sort of knows automatically where all the switches are for the lights and everything like that. She gets a bit confused sometimes but mostly she can find her way around," Neville added.

Even when offered respite care - where the government pay for a brief stay at a rest home to give those at home a chance for some free time - Neville went with Phyllis to be sure he could look after her if needed.

"That's what I want forever if I could, but I know it can't work that way," he said.

This month sees the couple clock up their 69th wedding anniversary, however they aren't doing anything to celebrate as Neville said the date holds no meaning to Phyllis now.

Looking back on the past 69 years, Neville said they had gone "mighty quick," despite spending the last 13 of those under enormous pressure.

"It's been very trying, and I've been under a lot of stress that I wasn't normally under - I still have a lot of stress really - trying to juggle things and work out what's going to happen next. You've just got to take it a day at a time, you can't make plans," Neville said.

He said despite the disease, he still feels the love Phyllis has for him, but not always.

"She biffs me sometimes," he said with a laugh.

"But that's another thing - their moods change very quickly. If I take something off her then she'll try and biff me - either by hand or get one of the dolls to throw at me, but you get to expect that."

For Neville, dealing with his wife's Alzheimer's has been a case of learning as you go. Although he had next to no knowledge about the condition 13 years ago, he said you just have to do everything you can to help.

When asked if he had any advice for those in a similar position, he said there was no way to tell, and it would vary from person to person.

"It depends on the person themselves whether they're prepared to go the extra mile and stick with it or put them in a home. I chose to stay with her. It's not easy," Neville said.

 - Stuff

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