When actor Kevin Whately got a call to say his mother, Mary, had been found wandering the streets in the dark, looking for her dog in just her nightie, he felt completely powerless.
Mary, a retired grammar school teacher, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years earlier, but her doctors felt she was still well enough to continue living alone at her Northumberland home.
“Her little dog had died, but it had sent her into a tailspin because she assumed he was out in the cold and dark, so she went looking for him,” explains Kevin, best known as Robert “Robbie” Lewis, Inspector Morse’s workaholic sergeant.
“It was a difficult time,” he says. “Over the years we’d tried to get her to come and live with us in the South, but she was adamant she was staying at home in the North.”
But the night Mary went looking for her dead pet changed everything, and when no suitable care could be found in the North East, Mary moved to a nursing home in West London, to be nearer her four children – Kevin, 70, Alison, 74, Frank,72, and Hilary, 68.
And though it hurt to see his mum reach a stage where she didn’t even recognize him, Kevin is grateful he was always able to visit her in her nursing home, chat and play her favourite John Denver music until the end.
“My heart has bled for people in nursing homes over the last year. It must have been so confusing to have dementia, and then see someone you love waving at you through a window, yet not visiting you,” he says.
“This must never be allowed to happen again. We know from statistics that lockdown has caused patients to become much more confused.”
Mary’s symptoms started when she was in her early 70s. The first of her family to go to university, she had studied history at London University during the Second World War, spending most of her course evacuated to St Peter’s Hall, now St Peter’s College, at Oxford University.
When Kevin’s father died of a heart attack at 53, she got a job as a teacher and, after retirement, as a keen archaeologist, she took part in digs.
Kevin, who lives in Bedfordshire, recalls: “She used to be really good at cooking, but if all the family and grandkids were up there, she’d find it difficult. She began to forget where she’d parked her car with her little dog inside and she’d go to the police. But when we got her seen by an expert, she showed off, answering all his questions like greased lightning.”
Mary was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003, six years before her death in 2009 at the age of 82.
“She had a very good neighbour, Barry, who kept an eye on her.
“But she knew her memory was going and it destroyed her confidence. She’d phone us 12 times a day, each time forgetting she’d just rung us five minutes earlier. I felt powerless being so far away. It was Barry who found her out in the cold, looking for her dog.” Mary lived at the nursing home for five years and Kevin was a regular visitor.
“We saw her often, but it was horrible to watch as she gradually forgot who we were,” remembers Kevin, who has a daughter Kitty, 37, and son Kieran, 36.
“I pined for her before she died. The mum I knew had gone. She’d say: ‘Hello, love,’ as we came into the room. But towards the end, she hardly knew who we were. I was filming and I got a call to go and see her urgently. They thought she’d had a stroke. I got there in time to see her before she died, which I’ve always been grateful for.”
Now Kevin is supporting the Alzheimer’s Society by taking part in its Trek26 walk in London in June to help raise vital funds to support the families of people with dementia.
Kevin had become involved with the charity when he was filming the 2005 TV film, Dad, which tackled the subject of dementia. He and his co-star, the late Richard Briers, signed up as supporters.
“It has become much harder to raise money but the Alzheimer’s Society is vital because it supports people isolated at home, looking after a loved one with dementia,” he says.
“These people are cut off from society. They can’t get out. They need that contact and advice.
“The more cash we can raise from walks, the better.
“Of course, I’d love to see a cure, but in the meantime, I’d like to see the care of Alzheimer’s patients as part of the NHS. Alzheimer’s is a disease.
“It shouldn’t be a separate problem.
“Better care is something that has been needed for half my lifetime.”
Having spent the pandemic doing voiceovers from home, and being able to get out and walk for three miles most days, he believes he’s fit enough to complete the 13-mile trek around London’s landmarks. But he jokes he’s not up for the 26-mile version.
“The walks are fab,” he says. “They’re a great chance to chat to people who are going through what you went through. My heart goes out to each and every one of them.”
Complete a Covid-secure Memory Walk this month or sign up to Trek26 in one of five UK locations. Find out more, here.