Anyone tuning into daytime TV last Thursday could have been forgiven for thinking a Very Important Person had just passed away. ‘She loved the public, she was everybody’s dame,’ according to presenters on Good Morning Britain. ‘She was a national treasure,’ one of the Loose Women said.
The person they were referring to was, of course, Dame Barbara Windsor who celebrated her 80th birthday a few months ago and is -er – very much alive.
So why the confusion? Why the need to describe the veteran star of stage and screen in the past tense? Thursday’s TV and newspaper reports came in response to the announcement by Barbara’s husband Scott Mitchell that his wife of 18 years has Alzheimer’s disease.
If ever there was proof that there is life after dementia, Barbara Windsor surely personifies it. Her official diagnosis with the condition came four years ago. Since then, she’s continued living her life, attending social engagements, meeting fans, going on holiday and even working occasionally, hosting a documentary for BBC Radio 2 last month.
This doesn’t mean her dementia journey has been easy. Life is undoubtedly getting harder for both Barbara and Scott, which is perhaps why he felt the need to go public with the news of her condition. He rightly hoped that once people understood, they would be patient and kind and allow Barbara to continue living her life. ‘She feels ‘a kind of shame’ about it and keeps asking if the public know she’s ‘not well,’ he admitted. ‘Her constant fear is, ‘who knows about this?’
It’s very sad that Barbara should feel this way, but it’s also very common. In fact, 1 in 4 people with dementia try to hide it. Being diagnosed with a serious illness is tough enough, but alongside all the other challenges of dementia there lies an all-pervading stigma – a result of ignorance and fear – that can lead people with dementia, and their families, to keep their mouths firmly shut.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Scott confided in a small circle of friends and family – as many other people decide to do. Since Barbara herself struggled to accept the diagnosis, he respected her privacy and the news went no further. Until now. Scott and Barbara’s decision (we don’t believe he would have made it without consulting her first) to talk openly last week was welcomed by both professionals and families living with the condition. Chief Executive Office at Alzheimer’s Society Jeremy Hughes said:
‘We were saddened to hear that Barbara Windsor has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease – but we applaud her husband Scott’s decision to speak out about her condition. Stigma around dementia still exists, and many people are facing it in the shadows. ‘Babs’, a true cultural icon, is much loved, and speaking out about her experiences will no doubt shine as a beacon for others wanting to live well with dementia.’
What a shame then that some media channels chose instead to seize on it as a chance to run obituary-style stories about her ‘battle’ with the disease she has been ‘secretly fighting.’ Dementia – like cancer – is an illness, not a battle that must be fought. Why should people with dementia be applauded for ‘fighting it’ rather than simply living with it? If they do eventually ‘lose the fight’ does that mean they failed to fight hard enough? Of course not.
For now, the only thing Barbara Windsor and her devoted husband need to do is keep living and enjoying their lives together as much as they can.
‘Scott is the most incredible man and I can understand exactly why he has spoken out now,’ says the couple’s close friend Christopher Biggins. ‘Yes, this is a terrible illness, but people shouldn’t be talking about Bar in the past tense. She is still great fun to be with. I went out with her three weeks ago and she laughed a lot and wanted to know everything that was going on.’
One week after the news was announced, Barbara and Scott have been inundated with messages of support and goodwill, much to their delight. For Scott it was a ‘huge relief’ to finally be able to talk openly. For Barbara, the public’s reaction has been a tremendous lift. She is said to be ‘thrilled’ that the announcement might help others. Let’s hope it also serves to remind everyone else that she is still very much alive and kicking.