In praise of Emmerdale

Over the past 18 months, ITV’s Emmerdale have run a storyline featuring a condition close to my heart — Vascular dementia.

It is the second most common form of dementia and the Alzheimer’s Society estimate that around 150,000 people in the UK live with it.

My late Nana had Vascular dementia. My beautiful maternal Nana Esther was one of those people battling the disease. I spent many years watching her slip away from us. I spent many years watching the profound impact that had on my mother. And I spent many years coming to terms with what we’d witnessed and gone through.

There are several different types of Vascular dementia, all of which can be found here (as can a lot more information than I could ever write). My Nana had one with a name I could never fully recall when asked: multi-infarct dementia. She suffered mini-strokes (or, to give it the medical name, transient ischaemic attacks) that lasted no longer than a few seconds before the blockages cleared and you’d never know what she had just suffered.

Except, really, you did.

When she was first diagnosed, she still lived in her warden-assisted flat. After she nearly burnt her flat down, we arrived at the decision that a residential home was in her best interests. It’s often been bandied about that placing somebody in a home is the hardest part. But, for us, it was never that. It was how quickly you notice the deterioration once the person is in that environment, which is something Emmerdale have shown well and with extreme care. After Laurel (Charlotte Bellamy) finally admitted Ashley (John Middleton) needed full-time care, the progression of the condition did seem to speed up.

John Middleton’s acting has been absolutely outstanding throughout the storyline and Ashley’s story has struck a chord with many — not just me. Family, friends, carers, doctors, anybody who has been affected by any form of Dementia (directly or indirectly) and even people who have had no experience of the cruel condition. The storyline has been a real testament to his acting skills, and I do believe John deserves all the plaudits he is getting.

The lucid moments (that declined over time) have hit me most. That is exactly what it’s like. I’m not sure anything I write could even describe it better. As Vascular dementia progresses, more brain function is siphoned off. The person becomes a shell of themselves and a shadow of who they once were. But there are these moments of remembrance. It can be a name or a memory or even a throwback to the person they were before Vascular dementia was a thing they even knew about. They’re special, and Emmerdale have done a fantastic job of bring home just how treasured those moments are. For example, Laurel’s scene dancing with Ashley in the home or the fleeting moments Ashley remembered his beautiful children Gabby (Rosie Betham) and Arthur (Alfie Clarke) — both of whom have been brilliant throughout this storyline.

And, equally, Emmerdale captured the sharp pain that follows when those moments are gone.

I remember one scene off the back of a lucid moment when Ashley turned to his wife and asked her who she was.

I felt Laurel’s agony. And I remembered my own.

There were times when my Nana couldn’t remember my mother or myself. Strangely, it seemed, she always remembered my father and, to this day, we’re not entirely sure why he always stuck. He was also the person who could get her to eat when she stopped eating – either because she didn’t know she was hungry or, towards the end, had simply forgotten how to eat or drink. And they among the hardest moments. Knowing so much about this person sitting in front of you who has grown confused and distressed because they don’t know who you are or why you’re next to them.

It is evident that the storyline has been very well researched and written, as well as superbly acted. I am incredibly glad that Emmerdale chose to incorporate this heartbreaking disease into their successful soap opera. I think soap operas can sometimes underestimate their power. I talk about this a lot on Twitter and I wrote many Sociology undergraduate papers (including my dissertation) on the impact soaps can have on their audience. Sometimes they can miss the mark and sensationalise important issues, thereby stripping it of any ability to do any good. But Emmerdale have approached the subject sensitively and produced an emotional but realistic plot from it. Awareness has been raised and more people are talking about Vascular dementia.

In the end, my story differs slightly to Emmerdale. I got to say goodbye to my Nana before she died in 2o11, because she was in hospital for a few hours before her spirit passed on. Gabby Thomas’s next battle is dealing with the fact she never got to say a “proper goodbye”. But, in some ways, I never said that “proper goodbye” either, for two reasons. Firstly, my Nana lives on with me every single day so I had no need to say goodbye – not really. Secondly, I still get upset sometimes over what the disease did and took away and, in that respect, you never say goodbye because it just doesn’t leave.

As family of a Vascular dementia suffer, thank you Emmerdale. Thank you for showing the cruel nature of the disease — most notably in a single-hander through Ashley’s eyes. Thank you for pulling the family through this horrible ordeal and for showing how living indirectly with Vascular dementia is an emotional and tragic place to be.

And thank you to John Middleton, Charlotte Bellamy, a fantastic team of writers and the rest of the cast and crew for saying through scripts and actions what I’ve always struggled to write down.