Making a Drama out of Dementia

Sunday morning and no lie-in for me. Whether I need to be or not, I’m always awake early and so I find myself tapping away while it’s still dark outside. My two cats, who were very happy to help me get up before six this morning, are now blissfully asleep again so it’s just me and some music to ease me in to my Sunday.

My thoughts this morning centre on two fictional accounts of dementia which have struck a chord. Last night, my wife Mary and I watched the film Quartet which enjoyed decidedly mixed reviews when it was released last year. Directed by Dustin Hoffman, it boasted a stellar cast – Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly (surely a knighthood awaits). Quartet is about the residents of a rest/care home for ageing musicians. If the storyline was slight, the acting was engaging and (we thought) the film a delight. The acting honours were stolen by Pauline Collins whose character was living with dementia, though this was never stated. It wasn’t an acting tour de force but it was beautifully observed and, as she became utterly disorientated as the film approached its climax, rang true.

The other fictionalised account of living with dementia has been in The Archers. I was aware that one of the longest-established characters Jack Woolley had been living with Alzheimer’s for some time and, in fact, that the actor who played the part, Arnold Peters, had died with dementia last year.

The Archers was very much a part of my childhood. My father was what they call an “Archers Addict” and proudly displayed a “dum di dum di dum di dum” car sticker to prove it. Mum was less of a devotee but, even so, rarely missed an episode. Mary is a listener, too, and so I catch the odd episode to this day.

I remember listening to what turned out to be Arnold Peters’ last recording in 2011. At that stage, dementia hadn’t taken such a firm grip on Mum and I remember being moved by the portrayal. He was quiet and compliant in that episode – he’d been angry and frustrated in others. In short, it was utterly believable.

What I didn’t know until this morning, though, was that the character had “died” at the beginning of this year. In all, Jack Woolley had lived with dementia for nine years. In other words, this was a real-time account of how dementia takes hold. Only a programme like The Archers has the time and space in which to do that. There have been many tributes to the sensitive manner in which the story unfolded. Here is one from a Professor of Old Age Psychiatry:

I want to congratulate the Archers team on one of the most accurate, sensitive, moving and just true portrayals of dementia I have ever seen.  It is so important that we see this illness for what it is – a terrible and common disease that robs people of their memories, personalities, loved ones and independence. Yet it is also one that hundreds of thousands of people cope with, with love, with humour, with care.

Simon Lovestone c. South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

http://brc.slam.nhs.uk/our-blog/brcu/farewell-jack-woolley

Performances like those of Arnold Peters, June Spencer (who plays his widow Peggy and whose own husband had had Alzheimer’s) and Pauline Collins help those with little or no experience of dementia to understand more about what the disease does but also, as Professor Lovestone points out, that it isn’t the end. People do cope, people do care, people still love.

In other news, it seems Mum might have an admirer at her care home. A new arrival, tall and handsome, seemed to me to be shamelessly flirting with her when I called in on Thursday. Mum was having her hair washed and blow-dried. Mr X made some appreciative noises and then kissed Mum’s hand. I could have sworn she giggled in response. Next time I pop in, I’ll ask him about his intentions and his prospects but it’s clear that I’ll have to keep my eye on him.

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