Lonely this Christmas as more live with dementia

IT IS an image of Christmas that has endured through the generations, for better or worse: the extended family gathered around the TV for crackers, music and the Queen's speech.

Ashley Thomas (actor John Middleton) in a special episode of Emmerdale. Picture: ITV
Ashley Thomas (actor John Middleton) in a special episode of Emmerdale. Picture: ITV

But today comes the first sign that it may no longer be in step with the emerging picture of 21st century life.

The time-honoured tendency to ply elderly relatives with drink while they let the festive fun wash over them may be in no-one’s best interests, two charities said.

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Instead, they suggest, celeb­rations should take account of the very real, and increasingly common incidence of dementia.

Actor Peter Vaughan appeared in the BBC's Our Friends in the North

The Alzheimer’s Society and Care UK raised the issue in the week that one of television’s most popular dramas presented it in a new light, with an entire episode shot from the point of view of a character carrying the burden of vascular dementia.

The half-hour Emmerdale special, shown on Tuesday, drew widespread praise from viewers and critics for its sensitive handling of the subject.

Vascular dementia, the second most common form of the affliction, affects around 150,000 people in the UK. But the number of people with dementia in all its forms is likely to reach a million within ten years, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Today, the organisation has issued advice to families hosting someone with dementia for Christmas, on how they can best reduce stress levels.

Actor Peter Vaughan appeared in the BBC's Our Friends in the North

New tips suggest allowing sufferers to graze on items such as sausage rolls, pigs in blankets and mince pies to prevent them feeling overwhelmed.

Other tips include keeping background music at low levels to reduce confusion, avoiding red colours in table settings, which can be upsetting for some people with dementia, and serving food on blue plates, which will always provide a contrast with the meal and means food can easily be seen.

James Clear, a chef with Care UK, said: “The key thing to consider when having Christmas with a loved one living with dementia is to not only give some thought to that person’s likes and dislikes around food and drink, but also to get family members or friends to remind you what has made their Christmas gatherings so special in the past.

“Evoking memories will help your loved one feel so much more at ease and able to enjoy the food and this special occasion.”

Many viewers were moved by Emmerdale’s former vicar, Ashley Thomas, played by John Middleton, struggling to recognise people and places as he tried to make his way home from hospital, in Tuesday’s episode.

One viewer tweeted: “Such a sad episode. Makes you think what all these people are going through. Well done in bringing this to the forefront.”

Another posted: “Poignant, realistic, scary, deeply moving and superbly written and acted.”

Emmerdale’s producer, Ian MacLeod, said: “People living with dementia face challenges most of us can barely imagine.”

Although not the first time that dementia has been portrayed on screen, it remains unusual for drama to be scripted around it. Peter Vaughan, the actor who died earlier this month, received a Bafta nomination in 1996 for a moving performance as a character who gradually develops Alzheimer’s Disease, in the BBC’s epic, Our Friends in the North.

Kathryn Smith, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Dementia doesn’t stop at Christmas and for many people affected by the condition, the festive season can actually heighten the difficulties they are already facing.”