To many, Tony Robinson is best-known as Blackadder's sidekick Baldrick, or the enthusiastic presenter of long-running archaeology TV hit Time Team. But Tony, 66, is also an ambassador for Alzheimer's Society – both his parents had dementia and he made a moving documentary, Me and My Mum, about his mother’s care, in 2006.
Nick Smurthwaite talked to him about his experiences of dementia and the care system in the UK.
From your experience of working with Alzheimer’s UK and visiting care homes, how would you sum up the present climate of care in the UK?
It seems to me that an awful lot of care homes should more properly be called dementia homes, and I reckon within 5-10 years virtually every single place that we now think of as a care home will be a specialist home for people suffering from the illnesses associated with old age.
My experience with my parents was that it was virtually impossible to get any continuity of care. This was because the amount of money the care workers were paid was so low that every time something like a new Tesco came into the area, care workers were tempted away by a better hourly rate.
So you think pay, training and conditions for care home workers be a priority?
Yes, it's vital there should be better training, pay and a proper career structure for care workers.
I think language skills are enormously important because so many older people are hard of hearing, and there also there are cultural differences about how carers from different cultures deal with older people. This is definitely an area where more training is required.
Why do you think dementia is escalating at such an alarming rate?
As a society, we have spent a huge amount of time, money and intellectual effort over the past 100 years both improving social health and inventing medicines and machines to improve our wellbeing.
We have a massively-increased longevity which nobody would have thought possible 150 years ago. However, we have spent very little time asking how we should address the consequences of that extended lifespan.
So where do you think we are going wrong, as a society, in addressing the problem?
My belief is that if we are serious about elder care there needs to be an emotional and intellectual transformation, not just a lot of pre-election promises that are promptly forgotten.
Too many of us regard ageing as a problem so big that it is easier to turn our backs on it. Yet it is possible to make profound societal changes.
In our lifetime we have succeeded in transforming attitudes to the natural environment, so that now every business and organisation costs in the environmental impact of what they’re doing.
If there's one thing that would bring about change for older people in this country it would be if we were to mobilise the grey vote in the same way that, say, the black vote is mobilised in America.
I’d like to see Downing Street choked with Zimmer frames, and old people chaining themselves to the railings, myself included.
Could more be done to educate the younger generation about elder care?
I’d certainly advocate more interaction between older people and the very young. Both groups are routinely denied the company of the other.
As soon as the old people come into contact with children they blossom visibly. One of the major frustrations in our society is that we’ve ghettoised old people.
On the subject of education, so many people suddenly find themselves coping with someone with dementia and don’t know how to deal with it, which is why care homes are so often the first port of call.
We haven’t allowed ourselves time to learn about how to care for our old people, we haven’t prioritised it.
Have you thought about your own decline into old age and infirmity?
Yes, I’ve talked to my wife and my children about what I’d want should I no longer be in control of my own destiny. We’ve talked about how my money would be deployed and where I would go.
But I do wonder how often those conversations are taking place between older people and their younger relatives.
My view is that it is a selfish indulgence on the part of older people to say, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that now.”
How do you think future generations will view our attitude to elder care?
The care of old people in this country, or rather the lack of it, is for me the big stain on our society.
I think people in the future will look back at the way we’ve treated our elderly in the same way that we now look back at child labour and women working down the mines in the 19th century.