By Natalie Palmer, a director at the Darlington-based law firm Latimer Hinks, a Dementia Champion, regional co-ordinator for Solicitors for the Elderly and a trustee for Age UK Darlington.
It’s rare for a work of TV fiction to have a profound effect on its audience, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. One of those rare occasions came along recently when Emmerdale aired a special episode focussing on long-standing character Ashley Thomas’s experience of living with vascular dementia. It can be difficult to understand how people living with dementia perceive the world, but the show’s producers put the viewers into Ashley’s shoes perfectly. I’m sure it will have touched a nerve with the millions of people who are affected by dementia every year, (either directly or indirectly).
For those who don’t follow the soap, the episode in question followed a day in the life of Ashley Thomas, whose struggle with vascular dementia has been followed by viewers since he was first diagnosed with the illness in the Autumn of 2015. Since then viewers have seen a slow, but steady deterioration as Ashley gradually loses his battle with the illness. This has had a genuine effect on some of Emmerdale’s more avid viewers, who have come to know and love Ashley since he first arrived as the village’s vicar in 1996. There was an outpouring of emotion on social media, with many commenting on just how close to home the episode was.
The producers deserve to be commended for their portrayal of some of the more well-known symptoms of dementia. Using the village of Esholt, where Emmerdale was originally filmed up until the mid-90s, helped viewers understand the disorientation and confusion that dementia sufferers sometimes undergo. Sudden switches of location as Ashley wandered the streets showed the incredible confusion and frustration that memory blackspots can have on sufferers, and replacing other well-known and popular characters with new actors played a similar purpose. This latter cinematic device is one that I think will have hit home most poignantly with viewers; visiting a family member with dementia who is unable to recognise you can be immensely painful.
Of course, Ashely’s story is not unique. It’s common for those with dementia to wander. The symptoms of dementia are caused by the damage or destruction of the brain cells responsible for memory, thinking and behaviour. This means it is very easy for a person to become disorientated and lost, even in a place they have lived in for years, as was the case with Ashley. In fact, dementia suffers going missing is a serious and regular occurrence, with around 60% of those with the illness wandering. Their illness means that they are particularly vulnerable to being injured during these episodes; they can walk into traffic, fall victim to foul weather or be taken advantage of by malicious strangers.
This is a fear that many of those caring for dementia suffers have, and why preparedness is key. When a dementia sufferer goes missing, the police need a significant amount of information from the person’s family, but usually (and quite understandably) those people who best know the missing person are under an immense amount of stress, and aren’t likely to be in a frame of mind to recall the historic data about their loved ones that the authorities need. That is why the adoption of the Herbert Protocol by Durham Constabulary in November 2016 was so badly needed.
The protocol is a way to give carers more peace of mind and makes the job of finding a missing person much easier for the authorities. The Protocol encourages carers, families and friends to complete a simple form, identifying vulnerable adults - but especially those suffering from dementia - who are at risk of going missing, and to collate relevant information, which can be used if such an event occurs. For dementia suffers this ought to include information on any prescribed medication, regular routines, mobile numbers, places where they previously lived or worked and a recent photograph. The document lives offline and should be kept in a safe place by the carers and family of the vulnerable person so it can be contemporaneously updated but is also close to hand should it be required.
Emmerdale’s focus on Ashley and his illness was one of the finest and most moving pieces of television of recent times. Although it took an emotional toll on viewers, it also served a valuable purpose by highlighting the serious risk that people with dementia can pose to themselves - I hope that it inspired others to proactively investigate what to do should a loved one go missing.
It is a fantastic platform to raise awareness around this condition and the pain it inflicts on its sufferers and their nearest and dearest.
To find more information about the Herbert Protocol contact Age UK Darlington, Durham Constabulary , Latimer Hinks Solicitors or visit Launch of the Herbert Protocol where you will find links to download the form.