They’re each talented performers in their own right, but they have something else in common apart from fame: They’ve all cared for partners with dementia
Dementia is a great leveller. If your wife, husband or someone you once loved is given a dementia diagnosis it makes no difference ‘who’ you are or whether you’ve lived your life in the spotlight, as these celebrities can all testify
The late, great entertainer Bruce Forsyth considered dementia a harrowing, cruel illness. ‘It’s a terrible illness,’ he said. ‘It’s just so awful to have your mind and your memories taken away from you.’ Sir Bruce made his feelings on the subject very clear after his first wife Penny Calvert died from dementia in 2014. Although the couple split up in 1973 (following 20 years of marriage) they remained on good terms and Sir Bruce became a regular visitor when Penny was diagnosed with dementia in 2008. Penny spend her last years in a care home and Sir Bruce, who died last week aged 89, found her dementia journey profoundly depressing. ‘If I had Alzheimer’s or dementia I would like the right to do something about it,’ he said after Penny’s death.
Whilst this view is one many will understand and sympathise with, it’s also heartening to hear that it isn’t everyone’s experience of dementia. Renowned actor Timothy West has found a way to make the dementia journey a little less harrowing for his wife Prunella Scales who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in 2014. In fact, it seems he’s found a way to bring them both quite a lot of fun too. Timothy, 82 and Prunella 84 – best known for playing Sybil in Fawlty Towers – both remain adamant that dementia won’t ‘hold them back’ and have now completed an incredible seven series of Great Canal Journeys for Channel 4. It’s a show which has steadily grown in popularity and has now amassed a regular two million viewers. Having previously travelled around the UK and Venice, the pair recently headed off to India for the latest series, which was screened in June.
Their latest two part journey showed them pass school bus-boats, laden cargo ships, and fishermen whose only tools are their hands. They explored a canal built by a local ruler to boost trade, make offerings at a temple, and, to Tim’s delight, Prunella dusted off her dancing shoes to learn a traditional dance.
Whilst most dementia carers do not, admittedly, have the services of a film crew at hand, or the ability to travel so widely, watching Timothy and Prunella making the most of what they’ve got (rather than what they’ve lost), is nevertheless inspiring and distinctly life affirming.
Yet no matter how deep your love or desire to remain positive, there might still come a time when you can no longer care for a partner with dementia. Miranda star Patricia Hodge, who received an OBE for services to drama this year, came to this painful realisation around three years ago when she was forced to make a heart breaking decision about her husband’s future care. When Peter Owen was first diagnosed with dementia, Patricia cared for him (her husband of 41 years) at home. But Peter, who was a successful music publisher, deteriorated quickly and is now in a care home. ‘Dementia is a devastating illness’, Patricia said. ‘We live with great sadness in our hearts but you have to get on with life.’