By Alison James
It’s another heart-rending storyline for Call The Midwife – Sister Monica Joan’s ongoing battle with dementia. But for actress Judy Parfitt, who plays the character, the role is made even more poignant by the fact that her late husband Tony had the disease. “He had vascular dementia and he passed away in February 2001, having suffered from the illness for some years, getting gradually worse all the time,” reveals Judy (80).
In Sister Monica Joan’s time, dementia was very much off the medical radar. But even when Judy’s own husband first started showing signs of the disease 25 years ago it wasn’t really talked about. Judy says: “Tony was an actor like me. He was guesting in a sitcom I was making in Los Angeles and having extreme difficulty learning his lines. We didn’t think much of it at the time, as he’d never found the process particularly easy, but it then became apparent that he was becoming very forgetful and behaving strangely at times.
“I remember one occasion when we were meeting our accountant. He was also a good friend and very much on Tony’s wavelength. They were chatting and laughing together when, out of the blue, Tony suddenly said something totally unrelated to what they’d been talking about. It was like someone had thrown a bomb into the room. We decided to seek medical attention after that.”
Tony was referred to a specialist but at that stage dementia wasn’t mentioned. “Maybe because I didn’t want to think it might be that, we didn’t press for a diagnosis and I put it to the back of my mind,” says Judy.
“But over a period of time, Tony’s condition deteriorated. Although he always knew who I was, he was confused for much of the time. I recall being in the kitchen and panic sweeping over me when I thought of what was happening. I had to give myself a talking to – I was no good to myself like this and no good to Tony.
“I just had to get on with it and accept the man I loved had gone and there was now a child in his place who needed everything doing for him.”
Judy went on to become her husband’s carer. “I was told I might not be able to keep him at home in case he became violent, but fortunately that never happened,” says Judy. “I was lucky in that my son and daughter-in-law lived nearby and were able to help.”
Help make a difference
This March Dementia UK is running a campaign called Make Time for a Cuppa to raise funds for, and awareness of , Admiral Nurses – mental health nurses specialising in dementia care.
Judy says: “Admiral Nurses are so important – both to carers and those who have Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia. But they are still in worryingly short supply. We need to make these dedicated health professionals as instantly recognisable as the Macmillan Nurses.”
For more information about the campaign, which starts on March 1, call 0207 697 4160 or visit www.dementiauk.org/get-involved/make-time-for-a-cuppa
- Call the Midwife is on BBC1 on Sunday evenings
- There's more celeb chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.