Susan Wingate speaks about her latest novel, dementia and caretaking

Her husband’s, who has dementia, disappearance from their San Juan Island home on a winter evening in 2019 left Susan Wingate panicked. She called search and rescue, and although he was found that same night, thoughts circling around ‘what if’ inspired her latest book, “When You Leave Me.”

“Fortunately it was not that cold. Bob had gotten turned around while taking out the trash and got turned around,” Wingate explained. “The trash is right by the driveway and the lights in the house were on, so it’s very weird that it happened.”

As a writer of 16 published books, it isn’t surprising Wingate wanted to tell the story. It was not until she read an article in the Journal about a foot that had washed up on shore that the novel began to gel.

While several incidences in the story are true, “When You Leave Me” is fiction. In the book, Jamie Michael’s husband, Larry has dementia. Like Wingate’s husband, Larry disappears and search and rescue are called. Larry, however, is not found immediately. After a period of time goes by, Det. Sgt. Rob Rimmler admits he suspects Michael. She must find a way to prove her innocence or face murder charges.

“Sometimes when you think all seems lost, it usually is,” the book description states.

“I’m a fiction writer. I can’t find the words for non-fiction,” Wingate said. Her father was also a fiction writer. Wingate describes his stories as funny weird mysteries and admitted her father may very well have been why she took up the craft. By 1995 she was calling herself a writer, and in 1997 she moved to San Juan Island where she wrote her first novel. During her second book, she developed an outline to assist in her storytelling. To date, her published works include award-winning novels “Storm Season” and “How the Deer Moon Hungers.”

When Wingate’s mother developed Alzheimer’s she became her primary caregiver. Now, after her mother passed away, she has been caregiving for her husband as his motor skills rapidly decline due to dementia. While the two falls under the overarching umbrella of dementia, there are differences.

“With Alzheimer’s, it’s a deterioration of gray matter. It makes a person kind of crumble in on themselves,” Wingate said. “Dementia affects communication. You can see this fuzzy area on the brain in his MRI.” While Bob can get some words out, much of his communication is through coughing or grunting.

A person moves differently with dementia than with Alzheimer’s as well. Bob shuffles, Wingate said. He has become hunched over to the point that he is now shorter than she is. Her mother on the other hand had days where she could walk just fine yet was falling over the following day.

Having been a primary caregiver for two different loved ones, Wingate advised anyone who finds themselves in that position to be gentle with themselves.

“Give yourself a break, give yourself time to figure out how to deal with the problems at hand. You are going to feel all the emotions all the time, and you just have to let yourself feel it,” she said. “People tend to be critical of themselves when they get angry but you just have to feel it and move on.”

Wingate added that having good people, particularly in the health profession, to help out is extremely beneficial.

“You are in the middle of it and can miss things, so it’s good to have an extra eye, have someone who can question how long specific behaviors or symptoms have been happening,” Wingate added.

When asked if there are any misnomers about Alzheimer’s or Dementia she would like to correct, Wingate said, “They don’t lose intelligence, they just lose the ability to express themselves.”

She gave the example of her husband’s aunt who had dementia yet her sense of humor would still come out occasionally, sometimes in the most inappropriate places. Bob too, Wingate said, still has his sense of humor and every now and then says something that gets her laughing.

“I think that goes for all [mental illnesses]. It may be a little whacked out, but there is intelligence in there that comes through on good days,” Wingate said.

“When You Leave Me” will be released June 6. For more information visit