A year and a half ago, Emmerdale approached Alzheimer’s Society wanting to explore the theme of dementia with one of their long-standing, well-loved characters. We were, of course, delighted to help as we recognise this is one of the most effective ways to raise awareness and challenge misperceptions of dementia. We have since worked closely with the researcher, director and producers to help them understand dementia and how it could be portrayed as accurately as possible on a show like Emmerdale.
As many people who have been affected by the condition already know, dementia can have a devastating impact, not only on the individual, but on the whole family. Many people are able to live well with the condition, but support, help and advice is needed along the way. It’s not something a family can, or should, face alone. The idea of a soap covering a story like this for any more than a few episodes was a huge challenge from the outset.
In November 2015 it was revealed Ashley Thomas, resident vicar, had been diagnosed with younger-onset vascular dementia. In the UK alone, 850,000 people are living with a form of dementia and of those, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 people have vascular dementia which is caused by problems with blood supply to the brain – for example after a stroke.
Ashley is a younger man, with a family – he has a teenage daughter, young son, and a new wife and baby to juggle along with his diagnosis. It is a very unique storyline and one so far that has given us a snapshot of the trials and tribulations faced by so many behind closed doors up and down the country. From those living in high rise flats in urban cities, to those in isolated cottages in the middle of the countryside, Ashley’s life is a reality for hundreds of thousands of people.
Emmerdale’s special episode was ground-breaking. As the episode kicked off, we immediately saw Ashley switching from one place to another as he left hospital. One minute in pyjamas, the next in his day clothes. This captured his own reality and exasperating memory problems and confusion – even viewers on Twitter questioned Emmerdale’s continuity – but it was all completely intentional.
The key device Emmerdale employed was the recasting of familiar characters – Doug, Aaron, Chas and, most shockingly Laurel, all appeared in new guises. This wasn’t at all clear from the beginning and you could really empathise with Ashley as a strange man pulled up in a car shouting his name and asking him to get in. If that happened to you this afternoon, it would leave confused, if not shaken and scared.
As the episode progressed, it became slightly clearer that the characters helping Ashley were actually his family and friends. But even flashes of who the characters actually were in the window of a car would leave a stalwart viewer unsure as to who Ashley should trust. This technique alone suggested exactly how Ashley must be feeling and explained why he became progressively more confused and agitated, despite the kind, reassuring words from all those who approached him.
Even when he returned home, Ashley insisted this wasn’t his home. And indeed it looks totally unfamiliar as the filming of this special episode took place in the real village of Esholt where Emmerdale was last shot over 20 years ago. This disorientation and unfamiliarity brought the viewer right into Ashley’s shoes, as his eyes welled with tears as he tried to get home to his mum, you could feel both his and Laurel’s’ despair.
The final moments were extremely moving as the stranger who looked like Laurel emerged from an embrace with Ashley as the regular actress, Charlotte Bellamy – Ashley’s loving wife. The episode illustrated the pure frustration a person with dementia can face and how this confusion can devastate carers, families and friends.
The progression of Ashley’s dementia unfolding in front of viewers eyes has been heart-wrenching and, at times, difficult to watch. Emmerdale have wanted to get it right from the start and have been open to feedback. Storylines like these also have the power to make a huge difference and change public perception. It was key, from Alzheimer’s Society’s perspective, to cut down on the drama and keep it as true-to-life as possible, which Emmerdale have totally respected while keeping true to the show.
We believe Ashley’s storyline is the closest a drama of this kind has come to presenting the reality of what it might be like to live with the condition. Of course, many people won’t have experienced dementia like this – and it’s important to remember everyone’s experience is different. But we hope that this has broken down barriers and helped many understand what dementia can be like and how it’s so important to ask for the help and support you need.
For those affected by the storyline, Alzheimer’s Society provides a National Dementia Helpline, the number is 0300 222 11 22 or visit alzheimers.org.uk
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