Heart breaking scenes from last week’s Emmerdale, showing Ashley Thomas moving into a care home, have resonated with many families living with dementia.
Last week millions of Emmerdale viewers watched Laurel Thomas leave her husband Ashley in a care home, after his dementia became too difficult for her to cope with alone.
It was a harrowing episode, though Ashley seemed to settle in very well. Then, as Laurel watched him laughing, chatting and drinking tea with other residents, she slipped quietly away. Her brave face didn’t slip until much later when, finally alone at home, she curled up on the bed she used to share with Ashley, and started to cry…
For anyone who’s watched a loved one with dementia move into a care home, these scenes must have brought back some painful, poignant and difficult memories. Visitors to Unforgettable often tell us that the ‘care home decision’ is one of the most difficult they’ve ever had to make.
When TV personality Craig Phillips’s mum Brenda was diagnosed with early on-set dementia at the age of 59, Craig’s step dad was determined to care for her himself. Accepting he could no longer cope, proved incredibly difficult.
‘He hated the idea of Mum going into a care home – nobody wants their partner to have to leave their home,’ says Craig. ‘But he wasn’t in the best of health himself. One night he was trying to help Mum up the stairs when she took a tumble. It wasn’t a major fall, it could have been a lot worse, but it was enough for him to realise Mum needed full time care.’
Many husbands and wives can find it almost impossible to make the choice. Dan remembers his mum’s devotion to his dad Kevin who was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59. ‘Dad was an adorable person but in the later stages of the illness he became paranoid and aggressive.’ The situation at home became ‘perilous’ before Dan’s mum could bring herself to let go. ’Dad spent the final two years in a nursing home receiving fantastic care,’ says Dan. ‘He became the beautiful, sweet person he used to be and Mum visited up to three times a day – all the staff loved her’.
Stand-up comic Arthur Smith recalls the months leading up to his mum Hazel’s admittance to a care home as ‘fairly bleak,’ including a few heart-stopping occasions when she’d go missing from home. ‘When Mum moved into a care home her life began to improve,’ says Arthur. ‘I’m pleased to say she’s now miles better. She’s usually calm, safe and generally living in the moment. We’re lucky that she’s still very verbal and even reads poems to other residents sometimes. She can be quite hilarious.’
Yet no matter how good the care home, or how well their loved ones seem, many family carers can’t help feeling guilty. ‘We’d always agreed that Mum would never move to a nursing home but things change, and from a practical point of view it really was the best solution,’ says John whose mum Barbara has vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. ‘I think my brother Peter still feels guilty about it but I honestly don’t think he has reason to.’
Whilst most families manage to come to a decision they all agree on, some sadly don’t.’ My sister and I both thought Mum couldn’t manage on her own anymore and needed to go into a home, but my brother didn’t,’ says Theresa. ‘He was adamant we were exaggerating and refused to change his mind. It led to dreadful rows Eventually a doctor had Mum Sectioned and the decision was taken out of our hands. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.’
No matter how anguished the decision or the move itself, many families admit to being pleasantly surprised by the quality of care their loved ones have received in residential homes. ‘The staff at Mum’s home are fantastic,’ adds Craig Phillips. ‘We trust them.’
‘The care home is perfect,’ says John. ‘Mum has a room overlooking the garden, she has good friendships and they do activities every hour of the day which keeps her mind alert. Her paranoia has lessened, she’s not distressed anymore – she really does have a new lease of life.’
Whether Ashley Thomas continues to enjoy living in his new home remains to be seen, though it does seem that Laurel is suffering far more than her husband as she struggles to come to terms with her new reality. Emmerdale producer Iain MacLeod has promised that the Ashley storyline will remain as life-affirming as possible. A number of ‘emotional and poignant scenes’ showing life inside Ashley’s care home have already been filmed, but his decline will be rapid.
As actor John Middleton prepares to shoot the final few scenes of his 20 year Emmerdale career, we hope Emmerdale will continue to raise awareness of dementia and all its painful challenges in such an honest and touching way.