More prime time TV dramas are including characters with dementia which, although uncomfortable to watch, are also helping to raise awareness, says Kate Corr

Last week millions of Emmerdale fans watched a dramatic and tragic storyline unfold involving former vicar Ashley Thomas who has vascular dementia.

Many viewers admitted they were in tears as they watched Ashley suffer another mini stroke and sink further into confusion, even forgetting his baby daughter’s name – or why he was attending her christening.

But his later decision to jump in a car and drive (at speed) surely resonated with anyone on the dementia journey. For the sad truth is that many people with dementia continue to drive when they shouldn’t, often despite all their family’s best efforts to prevent them. Although the resulting 15-car pile-up was thankfully the stuff of Soaps (real-life stories about accidents and crashes caused by a person with dementia driving are fortunately extremely rare), the storyline did manage to highlight this difficult and important issue, one that Unforgettable has also recently addressed.

Since Ashley’s diagnosis with early-onset vascular dementia 12 months ago, Emmerdale has gone to great lengths to convey the reality of dementia and the many lives it affects. The Alzheimer’s Society was consulted about scripts from the start, and welcomed the storyline as a way of raising awareness. ‘Properly scripted storylines like these can be a useful way to help many more people understand the impact of dementia,’ the charity’s Chief Executive Jeremy Hughes said when the storyline was first revealed.

As Ashley’s condition progressed and the role became more challenging, a dementia support worker visited the set to help actor John Middleton with some of the trickier scenes. John’s research also included visiting a dementia care home and meeting families living with the condition. He’s spoken regularly about how much he’s learnt about vascular dementia, and how humbling the experience has been, which is all good.

Indeed, as awareness of dementia grows, so does the amount of coverage it seems to get on TV. Viewers of BBC1’s The Missing saw a totally different portrayal of dementia last week. The gripping psychological drama showed a retired army general living with dementia. The bullish Brigadier Adrian Stone (played by Roger Allam) once had a brilliant career, but is now prone to aggressive outbursts and his desperate daughter is considering moving him to a care home. Interestingly however, the brigadier isn’t a sympathetic character, in fact he may turn out to be a real villain who’s committed terrible crimes in the not too distant past.

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For those of us who want to continue raising awareness of dementia, this could be considered another step in the right direction. As dementia becomes a more accepted part of life, the way it’s treated in dramas can become more varied, complex, interesting and – dare we say it – realistic. After all, a person with dementia could once have been a loved and respected vicar like Ashley or a sinister, brutal general like Brigadier Stone. They’re just people after all – whether they have dementia or not.

What do you think about the way dementia is treated on TV? Have you seen anything that’s made your blood boil, or reduced you to tears? Let us know.

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