Emmerdale’s dementia storyline has been rightly praised for raising awareness of dementia and for its sensitive and realistic portrayal of the dementia journey. But has Ashley’s demise happened a little too quickly?
If you know someone with dementia we defy you to watch the last few episodes of Emmerdale without a tear in your eye. Whether you’re a regular viewer, or have never watched a Soap in your life, the anguish and heartbreak of Ashley’s family as they come to terms with his imminent death, couldn’t fail to move you.
There’s no doubt Emmerdale has gone to a lot of effort to get the dementia storyline right; the Alzheimer’s Society has been consulted throughout, as have care homes and carers. Indeed, John Middleton’s performance as Ashley has resonated with many people, he’s even been stopped in the street and congratulated on his portrayal.
However, opinion is divided on the swiftness of Ashley’s final decline and the events that led up to it. Dressed in full vicar’s robes, Ashley simply walked out of the care home – the door was held open by a visitor who obviously didn’t realise he was a resident. Some viewers were quick to question how this could have happened. Surely care home staff should be more vigilant, they argued. But those with experience of dementia know that, sadly, this sort of event does happen more often than you’d think.
Visitors to Unforgettable have shared similar experiences of their own. Stand-up comic Arthur Smith told us how his mum Hazel managed to briefly ‘escape’ from her care home. ‘There was a note attached to the door telling visitors not to let residents out,’ Arthur said, ‘but apparently two old ladies managed to bluff their way out. The leader of this escape attempt I know to have been Hazel.’ MP Emma Lewell-Buck recalled the time her Gran walked out of a care home. ‘My uncle found her sitting in a field opposite, having crossed a busy road,’ she recalled.
So whilst we are able to believe that someone like Ashley could simply slip out of his care home unnoticed, we aren’t able to believe the amount of time it took to find him; two whole days and nights. Most care home residents who go missing will be found very quickly, (Arthur’s mum was found within moments) especially if they live in a close-knit community, where they’re as well known as a local vicar. Bearing in mind the fact that Ashley had gone missing before, wouldn’t it have been great if he’d been wearing one of the increasingly popular GPS tracking devices many people with dementia now use. What a difference such a device might have made to Ashley’s life expectancy – and what a different message Emmerdale could have given about dementia if he’d been found quickly and returned safe and well to the care home. After all, most people with dementia spend months or years living in a care home – not just a few short weeks, as Ashley has.
On the plus side, Ashley’s lengthy disappearance did allow further examination of the impact late stage dementia can have on families, and the divisions it can cause. Whilst Ashley’s wife Laurel (played by Charlotte Bellamy) prayed and remained positive, her father reflected on whether it might be a kindness for Ashley to die sooner, rather than have to cope with what he described as; ‘the slow, year after year long drawn out agony’ of dementia. Many families will surely relate to this kind of conflict.
Of course Emmerdale is not real life, it is a Soap, and as such it is surely under pressure to attract viewers with dramatic storylines. We should perhaps give the writers credit for allowing the Ashley storyline to gradually unfolding over two years, giving millions of viewers a real and vivid insight into the early stages of dementia, from all perspectives.
This week, as millions of people tune in to watch the final few moments of Ashley’s life we have been promised a positive, peaceful and life affirming ending, one that and will resonate with many viewers who have lost a loved one to dementia. However, whilst we all have our hankies ready, we still can’t help thinking that the final stages of Ashely’s dementia journey have seemed rather hurried, and – dare we say it – just a little bit unrealistic.
But maybe you disagree? We’d love to hear your thoughts.