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Life in the present

12 June 2015


WHAT is truth? A question raised not just by Pilate, but hotly debated by theologians and secular philosophers, was given a novel twist in Channel 4's Dementiaville (Thursday of last week). This study of the work of Poppy Lodge care home demonstrated how whole-heartedly the staff seek to build an ethos diametrically opposed to what the majority of those of us with loved ones suffering this terrible disease attempt.

Instead of trying to find ways of making the residents aware of what is going on in the "real world", they accept and reinforce the jumble of concepts that are real and present to them, here and now. By buying into the patient's world-picture, they are comforting and supportive rather than constantly correcting what the patients think is going on.

The obvious response to dementia patients is to try to find the magic key that will unlock the door to lead them back to the present. Surely I can make her acknowledge that her mother is long dead now, that she has six grandchildren (look - here is a photo of you at the baptism).

It is a process that carries a high failure risk, and a build-up of mutual frustration and impotence. Poppy Lodge cares for residents with a wide range of dementia, from those whose truth lies in splinters of past experience to those reasonably engaged in the present. The quality and commitment of the staff are exemplary, and we saw several months of the elaborate ways in which they seek to build up their residents' self-esteem. It was a moving journey.

The Syndicate (BBC1, Tuesdays) has just broadcast the opening episode of its new series. This time, the group of people who have won the lottery are the staff of a grand country house just outside Scarborough, the new gag being that the ancestral estate is millions of pounds in debt, and those below stairs are suddenly far richer than the nobs above. There is a fair amount of cliché and stereotype: the real toff is democratic, his parvenu wife is glacial, and his stepson is unspeakable.

But the dialogue has more grit than most family dramas. At the moment of triumph, the daughter who helps out, having built up a persona of shallow opportunist, willing to snog anyone who might get her modelling work in London, goes missing in suspicious circumstances, and everyone's justifiable exasperation with her is turned into genuine concern.

Previous series have explored at real depth the conundrum whether the acquisition of sudden wealth is a good thing, and what it does to strengthen or destroy relationships and values. I have high hopes that this will follow a similar path.

Among a splendid cast, best of all is the character played by Lenny Henry, the gardener with mental-health issues. He is the one who keeps the syndicate together, who spends his time on the most abstruse calculations to arrive at what he stakes his life on will be winning numbers. The joke is that, through a series of errors, they failed to use his numbers, and won on a purely random sequence.

He is distraught: he can't accept it: his gentle generosity is turned into anger and isolation. This could develop into a performance of genuine stature.

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