Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, South Tyneside, reveals how her gran Eleanor’s dementia left a lasting legacy.
Gran was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. Strength just seemed to radiate out from her. When I was with her as a child I felt safe, as if the world couldn’t touch me. I admired her so much, I wanted to be just like her.
Gran’s life hadn’t been easy. Growing up in South Tyneside in the 1930s she’d learnt to be tough; I’d watch her take food out of the oven with her bare hands (she didn’t muck about with oven gloves) and to fight for what she needed. When my parents desperately needed a better council house she staged a protest at the town hall – and it worked!
I was in my late teens when she started becoming forgetful. She’d wring her hands and get very distressed and tearful. Sometimes she’d just sit by the window all day, looking out. Other days she’d go out on her own and get lost. She used to love reading and chatting but bit by bit she stopped until she hardly engaged at all in conversation.
Eventually we decided as a family that Gran would be safer in a care home. It was a traumatic decision to make but it really felt as if there was no other choice. Our experience of the care system was probably very similar to many others; the first home we tried wasn’t good enough. She’d cry and say ‘I want you to take me home’ or ‘I wish the good Lord would take me.’ Once, she actually managed to run away and my uncle found her sitting in a field having crossed a busy road on her own. We were happier with the second home because we knew some of the carers who worked there and trusted that they’d treat her well.
But each time I visited I’d see a decline. Towards the end, she was just a shell of the person she once was. Gran died in 2003 aged 85 and I’m pleased to say that a lot has changed since then. Being able to keep Gran at home just wasn’t an option for us, but thanks to our growing understanding of dementia (and sites like Unforgettable), it’s becoming a more realistic option for many people.
As an MP, I know that dementia is mentioned far more in parliament than it used to be. It’s become part of the public conversation which must be a good thing. I also know from the people I meet in my South Shields constituency that there’s a lot more openness about dementia. Thanks to the brave people who’ve already started to speak out publicly, I honestly don’t think the stigma of dementia is anything like it used to be. Better understanding means that people with dementia – and their families – can live better lives.
As for Gran, I do sometimes wonder if I could have done more. But I was a young woman and I didn’t have a clue what I was up against. One of my biggest regrets is that she can’t see me now – she would have loved to brag about her granddaughter the MP! But to be honest, I’d rather brag about my Gran; the feisty, amazing women who was – and is – my hero. And I hope that maybe I did turn out to be just a little bit like her.