Saturday 21 September 2019

Barbara's bravery will help so many

Dame Barbara Windsor (Yui Mok/PA)
Dame Barbara Windsor (Yui Mok/PA)

Victoria Lambert

When you think of Barbara Windsor and hospitals, it's hard not to picture her in the pink uniform and black stockings of saucy nurse Sandra May who sends poor bed-bound Sid James' blood pressure through the roof in Carry On Doctor.

But the news that Windsor, one of our favourite soap opera stars, is living with Alzheimer's disease has changed that mental picture for good.

Indeed, by revealing her diagnosis with this frightening disease, Windsor has shaken up reminiscences of her - from Carry On cutie to EastEnders matriarch, via Broadway and the West End - even as she admits to losing her own memories.

Windsor's mental deterioration began in 2009, her husband Scott Mitchell revealed, but the veteran actor continued to work up until 2016, when her character of Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders was killed off by mutual consent, with the director one of the few to be told the truth about Windsor at that point.

Mitchell said the couple have gone public only now to counter rumours about her deteriorating health. In an interview with The Sun, he explained: "I hope speaking out will help other families dealing with loved ones who have this cruel disease. I want the public to know because they are naturally very drawn to Barb­ara, and she loves talking to them."

Dementia affects over 55,000 people in Ireland, according to the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. This number is set to double in the next 20 years and treble in the next 35 years. Up to 4,000 Irish people are diagnosed with the condition every year.

The majority (63pc) of people with dementia live at home. It's estimated that half of people never receive a diagnosis. Yet there is still no cure and dementia research is desperately underfunded.

The illness doesn't just affect those with it. Carers and loved ones make the point frequently that there is inadequate support - both practically and emotionally, especially if the dementia is associated with severe mood swings and aggressive behaviour. Many elderly people are also terrified they will have to give up their homes to pay for care, too. No wonder, then, this is such a taboo illness.

It is hoped that Windsor's revelation will make conversations around Alzheimer's easier to have. When Kylie Minogue opened up about her breast cancer in May 2005, there was an increase in referrals and mammograms almost at once. Following Angelina Jolie's revelation that she had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy (after learning she carried the BRCA gene which substantially increases the risk of aggressive breast and ovarian cancer), there was a corresponding rise in the number of BRCA tests among women. As these experiences have changed the national conversation on cancer, perhaps Barbara Windsor's news can help change the way we think and talk about dementia.

Irish Independent

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