She’s the voice behind Unforgettable’s powerful new radio campaign, and here Britain’s much-loved actress Paula Wilcox explains why dealing with dementia is a subject so close to her heart
Mum started to get ill a few years before she was diagnosed with dementia, but with Dad’s help she kept the symptoms well-hidden. When Dad started sending the Christmas cards instead of her, I remember feeling slightly annoyed, assuming he was trying to take over Mum’s domain. I was wrong of course, Dad was simply covering up for her, which I’m sure must happen a lot.
Dad gradually took over all the household duties until it became pretty clear that Mum just wasn’t Mum anymore. I went with her to see her GP. When he asked Mum if she knew who the Prime Minister was, she replied, ‘Well I don’t know…but I know I don’t like him!’ I had to smile at her response, but I was also absolutely shell-shocked because I hadn’t realised things were quite so bad.
Paula as a child with her mum
Getting a diagnosis
Mum was eventually diagnosed with vascular dementia and Dad continued caring for her at home. Dad was instinctively very good at handling Mum’s dementia, which was just as well because there wasn’t much information available at all. (If Unforgettable had been around, I’m sure we would have used it).
Dad created a simple routine, which included taking her out for a walk every day, and stuck to it. Mum was so blessed to have him there, but it was such hard work and I know he still hid the worst of it whenever possible. Dad became a hero to all of us.
Mum lost the ability to speak quite early on, she simply didn’t talk anymore. But dementia is unpredictable and not without humorous moments. Once, a social worker came to do an assessment. I remember her looking directly at Mum and asking: ‘So, if your husband wasn’t here do you think you’d be able to manage?’ Mum, who hadn’t spoken a word for weeks, calmly replied, ‘Oh yes.’ Dad and I just looked at each other and our jaws dropped…!
As her illness progressed, we managed to persuade Dad to allow a carer in to help occasionally. Later, we started considering a care home, but Dad was extremely reluctant.
Paula in Man About The House with co-stars Sally Thomsett & Richard O'Sullivan (Ltd/REX/Shutterstock)
Moving into a care home
Finally, however, we found a very enlightened home that Dad agreed was definitely to Mum’s taste. It was heartbreaking for him of course, but Dad knew he couldn’t cope anymore and had to start letting go. To make the transition as easy as possible, he moved into the care home with Mum, though it soon became clear he didn’t belong there. So Dad moved out and Mum moved into the special dementia care unit. By then, Mum had passed the point of being aware that he’d gone.
Dad visited every single day and it really was a wonderful place. Mum was kept busy and active and there was always something going on. She was particularly fond of playing games with balloons and music was a big help too, bringing much enjoyment. Most importantly, she was treated with kindness. I’ll never forget showing up one day unannounced and seeing a carer kneeling beside Mum gently feeding her a delicious homemade smoothie with a spoon. That’s a lovely memory.
Of course, the hardest part was watching her deteriorate. Mum always had a razor-sharp wit and was terribly funny. She was always beautifully dressed, too, and perfectly made up. Watching that person disappear bit by bit was extremely upsetting for all of us.
Mum died in 2010 but she was still very active until a few weeks before her death.
Mum’s dementia taught me many things; it taught me that dementia isn’t anything to feel embarrassed about, it’s an illness and it can strike anyone. It taught me the importance of asking for help if you’re a carer because the stress and heartache are devastating, and it also taught me the importance of kindness.
It’s heartening to see how much more informed people are about dementia now, just a few years after Mum died. As for Dad, I’m pleased to say he’s having a really good life, which is exactly what he deserves.
Listen the Unforgettable radio adverts that Paula does the voiceover for here.