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Ruth Langsford

Ruth Langsfords Care Home Story
TV star Ruth Langsford has been a fixture on our screens for many years now, presenting hugely popular shows such as This Morning and Loose Women. She's also engaged to fellow TV host Eamonn Holmes, her partner of 13 years.
It was while fielding a phone-in call on This Morning that she broke down in tears after revealing her father Dennis Langsford has Alzheimer's. 82-year-old Dennis, who was in the army for 26 years, has been in a care home now for three years, first in Torpoint, Cornwall and now closer to his daughters' homes in South Godstone, Surrey. Here, Ruth tells about her experiences of dealing with her father's dementia and selecting the right care home for him.

Can you tell us about the moment you had serious concerns for your father's health?

In his late 60s he started getting forgetful. We weren't concerned at that point, but then he started to do odd things we'd never known him do, such as put the camera in the fridge, a slipper in the shed or his wallet in the dishwasher. All of us started saying 'this isn't right'. You know your loved ones better than anyone else.

Was it hard to get others to recognise the changes in him?

We mentioned it to the GP who simply told us 'this is what happens'. In all we had concerns for a year before he was officially diagnosed. While we were shocked and upset we were almost relieved. It's interesting that a survey done with GPs found that one in three said they weren't sure about how to diagnose Alzheimer's.

Why did you as a family believe a care home was necessary?

My Mum looked after Dad for 10 years at home after the diagnosis and it's been a very slow decline, so compared to some we've been very lucky. He could still travel and have conversations for example. But he's been in care for three years now. In all honesty, the last year he was at home he probably shouldn't have been, but Mum was soldiering on and for her to pick up the phone was the hardest thing to do. She was making herself ill as he was getting up at 2am in the morning and flushing his pyjamas down the toilet. When he fell over we said, 'he needs nursing and you're not a nurse. It's dangerous for him to be on his own with you'. We persuaded her that it was time.

Why does a care home become the sensible option?

People forget the emotional side of caring for someone at home – it's not just getting them washed and dressed. Your husband doesn't know you anymore, which is incredibly difficult. And carers in care homes are working shifts and don't have as much of an emotional attachment to the person. My Mum can now be a wife again.

What help did you receive in starting the process of finding a home?

My mother did have very good health visitors. At that point we didn't have the need to explore care homes. He went to a day centre a couple of days a week. When it came to making the decision the health visitors do point you in the direction of free beds. They could see she was struggling and recommended Tor Care.

Why did it seem like the right place?

He went there for respite care a couple of times and they seemed nice and said there was a bed available. It was only 10-15 minutes away from Mum. But none of these things are taken lightly and it was very hard for us as daughters.

You moved your father to Surrey to be closer to you and your sister and arranged to find a house for your mother. How did you come to that decision?

We'd been talking for a while as a family. How would Mum feel about moving to Surrey? She said 'I couldn't possibly move Dad', but then in the last year she realised it made sense. Early on it had made sense to stay in Cornwall as they know everyone in the village and a couple of times he went walkabout people knew him to help. But if she was flu-ridden say, we were a long way from her.

How did you start the search for the 'right' care home?

I contacted the Alzheimer's Society. There are hundreds of care homes in Surrey, but aren't many that take care of people with Alzheimer's. A lot that do are private and very expensive. My father's place is funded. He pays through pensions and even though he is in a care home in Surrey now he has funding provided by Cornwall Health Authority as it's about where you were from.

What led you to Oakhurst Court?

We had to find one that was suitable, that Dad liked, Mum liked and that Cornwall Health Authority would approve for the funding. We were restricted financially and because many have only one bed or none for people with Alzheimer's. It took a lot of time. We went to see one, which said on the list it took Alzheimer's patients, but they didn't and hadn't asked to be taken off the list. We also decided to find a care home first before looking for a house for Mum as she could have moved and then find that the nearest care home with a bed available was 60 miles away.

What kind of information did you get?

You get each nursing home on an A4 sheet of paper, with the name, address, phone number and beds. But what can you tell from a piece of paper with no pictures? The Alzheimer's Society also sent me a pack. It would have made such a difference if we could have just logged on and had a look at homes. I'm in Weybridge and my sister's in Lingfield so we wanted somewhere in between. The trouble is you can't afford to be that fussy as it's largely about where there are beds.

How did you narrow down the final choice?

My sister Julia did a lot of the research. She actually went and looked. We got it down to three, which we all looked at. It's terrible and I hate to use the phrase, but it's then a case of waiting for 'dead man's shoes'. We didn't consider the private option as we couldn't afford the £900 per week or so that they charge. It would be great if there was somewhere with articles like '20 things to ask' and I hope this website will do that.

What would you say was the top priority for selecting Oakhurst Court?

The biggest thing my sister found disturbing was how few places have activities. People are just staring out of the window. At Oakhurst they have a full-time activities manager and the activities are geared to their needs and illness. At Oakhurst they do painting, music, Easter and Valentine's activities, a summer fete and the activities are relevant to their lives and what they used to do. They also bought a giant plasma screen for the lounge from the proceeds of the summer fete. And they had someone in with animals and another who did a slide show about World War II.

And what other factors played a part?

Health and safety and we wanted it to be homely, even though we understand it's not going to be a home from home. Even now I think 'he shouldn't be here', but with the lives we lead nowadays, with families disjointed and not all in the same village, life's not that simple. I do feel guilty every time I visit.

How long did the process take?

It probably took over a year from when Mum said 'I think you're right'. We put her house on the market, but there wasn't a huge rush as it comes down to who's got a bed. Dad had to be assessed in Cornwall and a report was written as people suffer different types of dementia. If they're violent, for example, they need secure homes and Oakhurst isn't a secure home. But he doesn't have that type of dementia.

How did you move your father?

Physically moving him was the next problem. We talked to the health authority in Cornwall and they said 'you can pick him up any time'. We had thought there would be a duty of care. He hadn't been outside for three years and is incontinent – to which they said 'we've got pads you can use'. In the end we paid for a private ambulance from the Riviera Ambulance Service in Torquay, which cost around £700 or £800 but was worth every penny as none of us were confident enough to do the journey.

What's the home like?

They seem very caring. They do a lot. They don't have any prescribed visiting hours and told us we could come at any time, even if we woke at 2am in the morning and wanted to be there. I never say when I'm coming and have never turned up and found him dirty or unshaven. You hear about hundreds of horror stories. My sister asked about whether they do activities at one and the woman there said 'Ooh no, there's not much point – most of them are away with the fairies'. Ultimately, there are no 100% guarantees, so you have to rely on gut instinct when you choose. My sister was brilliant too and I trust her instinct.

What stood out?

The lady who runs it, Pam, is gorgeous. A lot of the staff have worked there for many years. Dad's key worker has been there for 15 years. It just seems a happy place. Obviously homes will always have a problem with incontinence and will smell of disinfectant and in a perfect world they wouldn't be in a care home, but the room was as homely as possible.

What makes it homely?

The bed has a padded headboard, there's a lamp, and the window looks out onto the garden. When we first arrived there was a picture on the wall and a vase on the window sill. It was cosy, not institutionalised. The staff obviously know all the residents and all their foibles. They also asked us a lot and we filled out a questionnaire about my Dad. They also encourage you to do a scrapbook of memories. It was obvious to them that Dad played piano because of the music activity. They recognise that unlocking somebody's past is the key to being able to communicate with them now. They keep a daily care sheet, have visits from a dentist, doctor, hairdresser and chiropodist and there are always staff available to talk to. Also, lots of dementia patients like to wander and they don't discourage it.

What difference has it made?

I was only seeing him once every two or three months but can now see him regularly so it's made a big difference.

Was there any red tape that made the process more difficult?

If we were paying privately we'd have had a much wider choice. The only red tape really was the funding.

How important has the support of Eamonn been and what's the best thing a partner can offer someone in your position?

Emotionally Eamonn realises how important it was. He didn't really need to do any of the research as my sister did the leg-work and we got my Mum up to see the homes we were considering.

Can you tell us about the moment you broke down while presenting with Eamonn and why you've decided to be a more public figure on the issue?

We were doing a phone-in about guilt. I had no intention of talking about my Dad. A lady that called in was feeling really guilty as her husband had dementia and she said she wasn't looking forward to him coming back from respite care. I said 'I understand, my Dad has Alzheimer's', which was the first time I'd actually said it in public. I hadn't planned to say anything. Eamonn put his arm around me and then I started to cry. The lady on the phone said she was sorry. But Eamonn was brilliant and cracked a joke. The Alzheimer's Society contacted me after that and said they were so sorry and were there to help if every I needed it. I had so many lovely emails after that show saying I wasn't alone. I then got involved with the charity.

Why is the Alzheimer's Society so important?

Dementia is on the increase all the time and it's not going to go away. The charity has lobbied for training for the NHS, GPs and care homes to help people deal with it as it's a very specific illness, so that they don't treat them like they're 'away with the fairies'.

What can care homes do to improve their care for residents suffering dementia?

Dignity is the word. Treat people with dignity. Allow people to live with dementia. Communicate on their level and wavelength. You can't write people off. Stimulate them, communicate and actively encourage the family to be involved.