Prunella Scales, 82, and Timothy West, 80, are one of British acting’s most loved, respected and accomplished couples. They have been married for 51 years and talk to Age UK about the effect Prunella’s dementia diagnosis has had on their lives.
What did you think when you got the diagnosis?
Timothy: I was first conscious of things not being quite right about 15 years ago when I saw Pru in a play and I could see that she was having to think about the next line, which was unlike her.
So she went for some tests and the doctor said he thought it was a vascular condition, rather than Alzheimer’s. It must be a mild form of dementia because the development has been remarkably slow.
Prunella: I’m very grateful that nowadays things are diagnosed and named and you are taught how to deal with them. I’m a reasonably intelligent person and one makes adjustments. We are coping with it.
How has it changed your lives?
Timothy: While Pru and I still go to the theatre, she doesn’t remember anything about it afterwards. It’s not possible to have the sort of conversations we used to have. We live for the moment. I find thinking about the past unhelpful, but it’s OK to be in the present because, from day to day, I don’t really notice any deterioration.
Prunella: I’m sure it can be boring for Tim because he used to live with this person who had a very quick mind and a good memory, and now it takes me a bit of time.
So you have to be more patient these days, Tim?
Timothy: Yes, and sometimes I’m not. I find myself saying the same thing over and over again to Pru, and she repeats the same thing lots of times, which is OK as long as I’m not trying to do something else at the same time.
Can you work now, Prunella?
Prunella: Yes, but I have to start learning my lines a lot earlier. It takes me a lot longer to remember things than it did when I was 40. But it is not uncommon at the age of 82 to have memory problems.
Timothy: I think perhaps Pru is being a bit over-optimistic about this. However there is no reason why she shouldn’t still do radio, recitals or voice-overs.
Prunella: In our business, actors like to think they can carry on until they drop. I’d like to die on the eighth curtain call.
Have you had to cut down on your workload, Tim?
Timothy: No I haven’t. I probably should have but so far it hasn’t been necessary. We’re very lucky to have a marvellous live-in housekeeper and carer who helps Pru when I’m not around.
Prunella: Tim loves touring and travelling. I’ve always been a real home body. It is very important for me to have a base. I don’t even like opening the front door to put the milk bottles out. It’s amazing we’ve lasted so long!
Have you got involved with dementia support groups or therapies?
Timothy: No we haven’t. It’s largely a question of time. We’re already involved with all kinds of organisations and charities, and because Pru’s energy isn’t what it was, it is difficult to commit ourselves to anything else that demands regular hours of commitment.
Prunella: I don’t want to draw too much attention to my condition otherwise people will say, ‘Don’t employ Pru, she can’t remember anything.’
Do you dare to think about the future?
Timothy: We probably don’t think about the future as much as we should because things are OK at the moment. We’ve lived in the same family house in south-west London for 43 years and there will come a time when we’ll have to sell up and move somewhere more manageable, but it’s not yet.
A new series of Great Canal Journeys, featuring Timothy West and Prunella Scales, will be aired on More4 in March 2015.
Words: Nick Smurthwaite