Two moments stood out for me as I watched the first of Channel 4’s three-part Dementiaville series, billed as a programme exploring a radical approach to dementia treatment being used in a Midlands care home’s specialist unit called Poppy Lodge.
The first was when Marie, whose 56-year-old brother has a rare form of the condition called Pick’s disease, said of her younger sibling, “I took him to school for the first time, now I’ve had to take him into a care home – I can’t tell you how sad that was”. Bound up in that sentence is all the grief, confusion and disbelief that comes when someone you love has dementia. I know because my mum lived with it for 10 years before she died in 2012.
The second was when Jean, struggling with the fact that she’d had to move her husband of 58 years into Poppy Lodge, said she’d dared not look back at Bob as she’d left for fear she wouldn’t be able to walk away. Jean’s words brought back painful memories of when I used to swallow hard and stride quickly out of my mum’s nursing home, eyes front, fearful of being undone if I saw her watching me from the window. Dementia is hard to live with for everyone involved, in so very many ways.
Yet this hour-long programme, with its emphasis on a model of care that sees carers entering into the perceived reality of those with dementia – be it a Riley car factory or a former matron’s hospital – managed to be person-centred and positive. It probably did more in 60 minutes than almost anything else I’ve seen or heard to redress the media’s often negative portrayal of a terminal condition that those of us in the UK who are over 50 now fear more than cancer.
As such it is greatly to be welcomed and I look forward to watching the next two episodes. A scan of the #Dementiaville timeline on Twitter showed universal praise for the first one, with many tweets wishing that Craig Edser, Poppy Lodge’s activities-co-ordinator, could be cloned and placed in every care home in the land. From what I saw, I’d have to agree.
And yet, and yet. I wish there had been a little more grit, a little more scratching under the surface of what dementia is and what it does to families – a closer exploration of what lay behind the complex emotions expressed through the haunting words of Jean and Marie.
This could just be the journalist in me coming out. It could be that the next two episodes will address my concerns. Or it could be that the programme affected me as it did because, over two years after my mum died, I still feel the guilt of placing her in a nursing home that, unless I’m much mistaken, wasn’t a patch on Poppy Lodge.
I remember the phone calls I received from members of staff telling me that mum had been hitting other residents with her walking stick – and my initial reaction of horror and disbelief rapidly giving way to panic as I realised that I may have to move her to another home.
I remember the woman in mum’s dementia wing who used to screech and wail. Her carers – not nearly as well trained in the condition as those in Poppy Lodge and whose English (dare I say it) barely allowed them to communicate with me, let alone with those with dementia – did their best to pacify the wailing woman, but her cries rarely stopped.
I longed to know how Craig would deal with someone whose dementia made them more belligerent (more like my dear old mum was for a while) and less seemingly endearing than Les, John or Effie (the Poppy Lodge resident who thought she was matron).
I can already hear my critics saying that I can’t have it both ways: I can’t wish for more positive media stories and then carp that a programme is, in effect, too positive. But touches of shade highlight the sun’s strength.
For me, watching Dementiaville seemed a bit like being transported in a very fast car over rough terrain in order that I wouldn’t notice the bumps. This was probably largely due to the soundtrack and editing. So my reservations may simply be because my world is words, not pictures, and this was TV.
Like many who took to Twitter, I too wish there were more Jo-Annes and Craigs in our country’s care homes to take residents with dementia on regular swimming trips and extend them such patient, thoughtful care.
I have nothing but respect for everyone involved in the programme. I just wish that some of the roughness, the rucks and ridges that must exist in Poppy Lodge – because, quite frankly, dementia is like that – hadn’t been quite so slickly smoothed over.
Had the film’s makers allowed a little more grittiness, a few more awkward, difficult moments (not sad ones, there were plenty of those) to make it onto the screen, a very moving programme would have been made earthier, realer and better for me. Though, judging by Twitter, perhaps not for you.