“So when I left Germany, I landed in Perth, and asked where I could buy a horse to ride across Australia,” explains Dieter Reichter. “I had absolutely no idea at the time why everyone stared at me like I was nuts.” He slaps his thigh and roars with laughter.
The 82-year-old does that a lot. His conversation is an engaging stream of jokes, one-liners and humorous anecdotes. But behind the merriment is a steely determination to carry on looking after his beloved wife, Joan. Whatever it takes.
Dieter is Joan’s carer. She’s had two serious bowel operations, nearly died three times and suffered four strokes - twice teaching herself how to walk again. She’s partially paralysed and while she manages to get around their Watsonia North home with a walker, knows she’d be lost if anything happened to her husband of 58 years.
Some people express love with words. Others with actions. And Dieter is a man of action. So when he started to feel a little creaky after four knee replacements, he decided he needed to do something about it in order to carry on caring for Joan.
So Dieter went on a six week Short Term Restorative Care Program through Uniting AgeWell. The aim of the program is to keep clients as well and as health as possible at home and out of hospital while they wait for their home care package.
He worked with Uniting AgeWell Care Advisor Joyce Thuku, who is an occupational therapist. And they worked out creative ways for him to exercise at home as well as installing a number of home modifications and equipment to help him.
There are grab rails in the toilet and shower, he has an exercise bicycle in the garage, new podiatry foot wear and his all-time favourite – an electric lift recliner chair.
“Look at this!” Dieter beams as he presses the remote and demonstrates how the comfortable recliner tilts upwards to allow him to stand up easily. “The only thing it can’t do is bring me whisky.”
And now, with the bounce in his step matching the twinkle in his eye, Dieter is quick to attribute his new zest in life to the program. He agrees the program was hugely needed.
“Both of us have long decided that if we became frail, or couldn’t look after ourselves, we would never live with any of our three sons. We don’t want them to be in a carer’s role. So if something happened to me, I know that Joan would opt to leave our home that she loves and move into aged care.”
It’s easy to see why Joan loves her home. It’s a reflection of her artistic talent. Beautifully embroidered needlework and craftwork pictures she’s made over the years adorn the walls, and an assortment of her hand-made dolls brighten up the spare bedroom.
And now that Dieter is feeling fighting fit, he’s whipping through all the housework and tending his vegetable patch in record time. Not to mention heading off with Joan on a week-long holiday in country Victoria.
The early years
Dieter describes himself as a “stubborn-old German at heart.” But the retired fitter and turner and whitegoods repairman, is proudly Australian and is passionate about the country that has given him his family including eight grandchildren, his home and decades of joy.
Dieter was born in the Ruhr Valley in Southern Germany and although he was only six years old at the end of the war, vividly remembers being evacuated at least three times and having his home bombed twice. Many of his family members lost their lives.
After he finished his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, he and a mate decided to leave Germany in order to avoid being called up for national service. He toyed between going to Canada, America or Australia – and he’s hugely grateful for having picked the lucky country.
He landed in Perth, travelled around a bit and moved to Melbourne. And one night, after a dance at a venue in Prahran, he and his mate noticed two girls waiting patiently for a tram at the tram stop and got chatting to them… One of them was Joan.
And their fate meeting at the tram stop was the start of a long journey together.
Although neither can recall the proposal, 78-year-old Joan can still remember the beautiful dress she wore on their first date!
Mind you, remembering dresses comes easily to Joan! She is a gifted seamstress who used to make dresses and pant suits for Dame Vera Holt, wife of former Prime Minister Harold Holt who mysteriously disappeared into the waves at Portsea in 1967.
Joan was only 21 when she suffered her first stroke. But her positive outlook, sunny disposition and steely determination have carried her through. Helped of course by Dieter, who throughout her health issues, has been firmly at her side.
Nothing has changed. Except that he’s now feeling strong again.
“I need to be,” he says simply. “For Joan.”Learn more about Respite and Carer Support